North Korea Tests Rocket; Early Reports Say It Failed

SEOUL, South Korea — Defying weeks of international warnings of more censure and further sanctions, North Korea launched a rocket on Friday, a belligerent act that the United States called a cover for developing an intercontinental ballistic missile that one day might be able to carry a nuclear warhead.

But the much-publicized launch event appeared to fizzle moments after the three-stage rocket lifted off, with Japanese government officials saying it had broken into several pieces while still in North Korean territory or over South Korean waters. The three-stage rocket, called the Unha-3, blasted off from the Soehae launch site near North Korea’s western corner with China, at about 7:39 a.m., said Kim Min-seok, spokesman for the South Korea Defense Ministry. There was no immediate announcement of the launch from the North.

“The South Korean and U.S. intelligence authorities are collecting further data to confirm whether the launch was successful or not,” Mr. Kim said.

In Tokyo, Japan’s government spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura, said that an American satellite had detected a launch at 7:40, but the object appeared to break apart soon after takeoff. He said the Japanese prime minister convened an emergency meeting of his national security advisers, but that no object had been detected approaching Japanese territory.

Mr. Fujimura called on the Japanese people “to go about your daily lives,” saying there was no reason to panic.

Japan’s Defense Ministry said the object appeared to break up one minute after launch.

North Korea had said the rocket would fly southward, carrying its Kwangmyongsong-3 communications satellite, and has insisted the launch was for peaceful purposes. The North’s two previous attempts to put versions of Kwangmyongsong into orbit — one in 1998 and the second in 2009 — both failed to reach the required altitudes, according to experts.

South Korea, Japan and the Philippines — the countries near the North Korean rocket’s projected trajectory — were on heightened alert in case the launching went awry and might endanger their citizens or properties. Airlines and ships had been ordered to stay away from the rocket’s trajectory and the splashdown zones of its debris.

The North’s decision to proceed with the launch came despite a rising chorus of warnings, led by the United States. For weeks, Washington has told Pyongyang to cancel the launch or the United States would suspend a promised food aid shipment to the impoverished, isolated country, which has been in a technical state of war with the United States since the armistice that halted the 1950-53 Korean War.

The United States and its allies also warned that they would take the country to the United Nations Security Council for a censure and probably further tighten sanctions already imposed on North Korea for its previous missile tests.

At the same time, monitors were checking for signs the North might be preparing to conduct its third nuclear test. South Korean monitors recently had warned of seeing activity that suggested preparations at a site near the northeastern tip of the country where its other tests were conducted.

The rocket launch alone represented a belligerent statement by North Korea and its new leader, Kim Jong-un, that he intended to follow a path of international defiance laid by his late father, Kim Jong-il and grandfather, Kim Il-sung.

The North said it was launching the rocket as part of national celebrations honoring the 100th birthday of Kim Il-sung, the country’s revered founder. But the United States and other countries said they suspected the satellite program simply offered a pretext for work on intercontinental ballistic missile technology that might someday enable the North to deliver nuclear warheads.

The timing tied together the North’s defiance to the final steps of the young Mr. Kim’s ascension this week. Because of the national celebrations for Kim Il-sung, the events were also wrapped in his nearly god-like mantle. The grandson bears a physical resemblance to his forbear that has often been invoked to help solidify the public’s embrace.

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