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North Korea Rocket Explodes After Liftoff

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

North Korea had invited the world to witness its grand gesture: a rocket launch to commemorate its founder, Kim Il Sung. Instead, it became a mortifying failure, breaking apart just moments after takeoff and falling into the sea. The international community had condemned the launch as a provocation. And even though the rocket crashed, North Korea is still being accused of violating U.N. Security Council resolutions and undermining regional stability.

NPR's Louisa Lim reports from Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROASTED CHESTNUTS")

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: As North Korea launched its rocket, its state-run television was showing a video for a song called "Roasted Chestnuts." So North Koreans were spared the humiliation of seeing their rocket exploding in mid-air about a minute after launch. But several hours later, normal programming was interrupted on North Korean television for an unusual announcement.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: The earth observation satellite failed to enter orbit, the grim-faced announcer said. Scientists, technicians and experts are now searching for the cause of the failure. This was an unprecedented moment of honesty. When the past two rocket launches failed, Pyongyang simply lied to its people. But having invited the international press in, such a pretence was impossible this time. And there is likely to be domestic fallout.

Jasper Kim from Ewha University in Seoul says this bungled launch could pose a crisis for North Korea's untested young leader, Kim Jong Un, who took over suddenly after his father's death in December.

JASPER KIM: What it does do in the short run is to put an extreme amount of pressure on Kim Jong Un. This is the last thing he wanted. He wanted basically to bask in the glory of all these major accomplishments in front of the international community and the press. But now it's the greatest embarrassment that North Korea has suffered, at least in this century, if not ever.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

LIM: North Koreans have been practicing for months for massive celebrations to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of their founder, Kim Il Sung. The launch was supposed to be the centerpiece of that: a matter of intense pride and patriotism.

Speaking before the launch, Shin Ju-Hyun, the chief editor of the Daily NK, had warned any failure could unleash internal conflicts.

SHIN JU-HYUN: (Through translator) With any failure of the rocket launch, there's so much possibility that unseen conflicts and power struggles inside the regime could emerge.

LIM: In South Korea, a Defense Ministry official warned parliament that the possibility of a nuclear test - Pyongyang's third - or of other provocations is very high.

Peter Beck from the Asia Foundation in Seoul says this failure is likely to make Pyongyang more belligerent.

PETER BECK: North Korea has to prove itself to the world, the West and the rest, that it can move forward and unimpeded, despite this failure. I think we're entering into a new era of provocation by the North because it's been so embarrassed in front of the international community.

LIM: So far, the international reaction has been fast and furious: condemnation from world leaders who see this as a covert test of missile technology.

White House press spokesman Jay Carney accused Pyongyang of wasting its money on weapons and propaganda displays while its people go hungry. The U.S. says it will cancel plans for food aid for the North. But, as the past has shown, the international community is lacking tools to deal with Pyongyang, according to North Korea expert Andrei Lankov at Kookmin University. He says a slap on the wrist from the U.N. would mean nothing to Pyongyang.

ANDREI LANKOV: Why should they care? Sanctions are not working, partially because China is not going to join sanctions sincerely. Strategic patience is not going to work. Engagement is not going to work, as well. What is going to work? Honest answer is: nothing.

LIM: But that unpalatable truth will not stop the hours of diplomatic to-and-fro. In Pyongyang, they're still preparing for their Sunday celebrations. But the failure of this rocket will mean it's less a show of triumphalism than one of defiance.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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