North Korea launched a multistage rocket Friday morning in an act of international defiance, after being asked repeatedly by the U.N., U.S., Russia, Japan, and others to stand down.
The spacecraft exploded less than two minutes after liftoff. Minutes later, fragments of the failed rocket were bobbing in the Yellow Sea. What does this mean for the future of North Korea — and what does it mean for the rest of the world?
North Korea's three-stage Unha-3 rocket stood a little over 100 feet tall, and had enough liquid fuel-burning oomph to place a 2200-pound, hd-camera equipped satellite into Earth's orbit (and a pretty sorry one at that - Time's Jeffrey Kluger and others have described the satellite as "barely above the hobbyist level" in sophistication). North Korea claimed the satellite and onboard camera would be used to observe the country's geography and weather patterns, and that the Unha-3 would be used to peaceful, scientific ends. To say that people were unconvinced by North Korea's assurances would be a bit of an understatement.
The biggest issue is that North Korea stood to gain much more from the launch than the satisfaction of placing a satellite in orbit; this was an opportunity to showcase its military legitimacy. An Unha-3 carrier is precisely the kind of rocket that could be used to mount an international missile strike. A successful launch would have indicated that the country is on its way to becoming a legitimate military threat to nations other than its immediate neighbors; a country with the technology to place a satellite in orbit is significantly closer to being able to mount an intercontinental attack than one without.
News of the failed launch started pouring in just minutes after liftoff. As details rolled in, it became clear that the rocket had managed to fly for less than 90 seconds before splintering apart at an altitude of around 400,000 feet and falling in pieces into international waters west of the Korean Peninsula.
Hours later, North Korea issued a terse statement, which read: "The Earth observation satellite failed to enter its preset orbit," and added that scientists were "looking into the cause of the failure."
This brief simulation, courtesy of Analytical Graphics, Inc., models the debris field produced by the fragmentation and crash of the rocket. According to CBS news, two South Korean destroyers, U.S. Navy minesweepers, and Japanese self-defense teams are already busy scouring the seas in search of recoverable debris.
The United States, Russia, Italy, France, Japan, the U.N. and others urged North Korea not to launch the rocket and to "refrain from what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described as "pursuing a cycle of provocation." They launched it anyway, in a move the international community claims clashes with North Korea's purported willingness to pursue peace and international diplomacy.
A statement condemning the launch, issued late last night by the White House, highlights this inconsistency: "Despite the failure of its attempted missile launch," reads the statement, "North Korea's provocative action threatens regional security, violates international law and contravenes its own recent commitments."
Last month, U.S. officials warned North Korea that proceeding with the launch would jeopardize the provision of food aid to the country's undernourished populace — an assistance plan that was agreed upon in February. That agreement was reached with the understanding that North Korea would enact an immediate moratorium on weapons testing and other development activities.
"Every time North Korea has violated a Security Council resolution," explained President Obama during a visit to Seoul two weeks ago, "it's resulted in further isolation [and] tightening of sanctions... I suspect that will happen this time as well."
The Future Implications
North Korea's decision to make the launch public has made hiding its failure from the world — let alone its citizens — all but impossible. Experts say the public nature of the failure and the embarrassment it brings could actually spur even more aggressive gestures from North Korea in the near future.
In an unprecedented move, North Korea has actually admitted that the rocket failed just after launch (North Korea has experienced several launch failures, but this is the first time the country has actually admitted to one). As a result, the country will likely be looking for ways to flex its might in the months ahead.
On NPR Morning Edition, Louisa Lim reported: "In South Korea, a defense ministry official warned parliament that the possibility of a nuclear test -– North Korea's third — or of other provocations is very high," and that "this failure is likely to make Pyongyang more belligerent."
"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," explained the Asia Foundation's Peter Beck.
These sentiments were echoed by Rory Medcalf, director of international security at the Lowy Institute, who, in an interview with CNN, said "I wouldn't exaggerate it, but the chance of a nuclear test this year is now higher than it was yesterday."