North Korean Rocket Launch Fails

After bringing in the international press to tout what was supposed to be an achievement to mark the 100th anniversary birth of Kim Il Sung, the North Koreans suffered a humiliating international embarrassment:

SEOUL, South Korea — For the new North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, who completed the last step in his hurried ascension to power in Pyongyang on Friday, his government’s failure to put a satellite into orbit is a $1 billion humiliation.

Mr. Kim wanted to mark his ascension to top political power — timed with the country’s biggest holiday in decades, the 100th birthday of his grandfather and North Korean founder, Kim Il-sung — with fireworks, real and symbolic. And the launching of its Kwangmyongsong, or “Bright Shinning Star,” satellite was the marquee event.

On Friday, the satellite disintegrated in a different kind of fireworks. The rocket carrying it exploded mid-air about one minute after the liftoff, according to American, South Korean and Japanese officials. The rocket and satellite — which cost the impoverished country an estimated $450 million to build, according to South Korean government estimates — splintered into many pieces and plunged into the gray blue waters of the Yellow Sea.

Hours later, despite the embarrassing setback, Mr. Kim was upheld as the new head of the national defense commission, his country’s highest state agency, during a parliamentary meeting in Pyongyang on Friday. That was the last among the top military, party and state posts that have been transferred to him from his father, Kim Jong-il, who died in December.

For the launching and probably other future tests, North Korea has recently completed a brand new launch site near the western border with China — at a cost of $400 million according the South Korean estimates.

The rocket reached only about 94 miles in altitude, far less than 310 miles requited to place a satellite into orbit and, as North Korean officials liked to say, present “a gift” to the closest the North Koreans had to a heavenly God: Kim Il-sung.

In a socialist country steeped in the traditions of a Confucian dynasty, it is of paramount import for the young leader, Mr. Kim, to embellish his rise to power with events that showed his loyalty to his forefathers while demonstrating his own abilities to lead, analysts said.

“The main drive behind the rocket launch was domestic politics,” said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul and a visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. “They wanted to introduce the Kim Jung-un era with a big celebratory bang. They wanted to make their people believe that they were now a powerful nation.”

And the government, more famous for shutting its country off from the outside world, had intensified the pre-launch publicity. It trumpeted the satellite program as a key achievement of Mr. Kim, claiming that he had personally directed a previous satellite launching in 2009. It also invited foreign journalists to visit the launch site and command and control center.

The result was more than a loss of face. North Korea lost 240,000 tons of food aid, estimated to be worth $200 million, that Washington had promised in February but then said it was canceling because of the announced rocket launch.

And on top of all that the U.N. Security Council will be meeting together to consider what response there should be to a launch that is a clear violation of existing sanctions. All in all, not a good start to those Centennial celebrations.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Vast Variety says:

    I wonder how many were executed for this failure.

  2. Franklin says:

    @Vast Variety: That’s what I came here to say. I’d like to laugh at the failure, but I imagine some of those poor rocket scientists won’t be heard from again. Probably more likely to be sent off to camp than outright executed, though.

  3. @Vast Variety: I was just thinking about the North Korean football (soccer) coach, who was sent to prison labour for the failings of his team in the World Cup’s “Group of Death” (Brasil, Portugal, and the Ivory Coast, arguably Africa’s best team). They didn’t stand a chance, and yet for all we know, that coach is dead, after a public humiliation.


  5. al-Ameda says:

    I’m sure the Republican Party is extremely disappointed – another opportunity to portray Obama as weak on defense went by the wayside. Oh well, I’m sure that they have hope Iran will announce a missile launch before the November election.

  6. grumpy realist says:

    Well, it was a “big celebratory bang”, only not quite in the way they had planned….

    Anyone know if this was a LH/LOX attempt, or solid fuel?

  7. Ben Wolf says:

    It is the height of hypocrisy for the U.S. to criticize a nation for violating U.N. resolutions when the U.S. itself is one of the world’s worst offenders, violating the very charter of the U.N. without hesitation when doing so is in its interests.

  8. walt moffett says:

    interestingly, the offical KCNA reports the rocket “fails to enter its orbit”. So no doubt many volunteers for the next phase of the Kwaksan “huge socialist farm and fish farm that bring happiness to the people” project.