PYONGYANG/SEOUL - North Korea said its much hyped long-range rocket launch failed on Friday, in a very rare and embarassing public admission of failure by the hermit state and a blow for its new young leader who faces international outrage over the attempt.
The isolated North, using the launch to celebrate the 100th birthday of the dead founding president Kim Il-sung and mark the rise to power of his grandson Kim Jong-un, is now widely expected to press ahead with its third nuclear test to show its military strength.
"The possibility of an additional long-range rocket launch or a nuclear test, as well as a military provocation to strengthen internal solidarity is very high," a senior South Korean defence ministry official told a parliamentary hearing.
The two Koreas are divided by the world's most militarised border and remain technically at war after an armistice ended the Korean War in 1953.
The United States and Japan said the rocket, which they claimed was a disguised missile test and the North said was to put a satellite into orbit, crashed into the sea after travelling a much shorter distance than a previous North Korean launch.
Its failure immediately raised questions over the impoverished North's reclusive leadership which maintains one of the world's largest standing armies but which cannot feed its people without outside aid, largely from its solitary powerful backer, China.
"(There is) no question that the failed launch turns speculation toward the ramifications for the leadership in Pyongyang: a fireworks display gone bad on the biggest day of the year," said Scott Snyder of the Council on Foreign Relations.
In a highly unusual move, the North, which still claims success with a 2009 satellite that others say failed, admitted in a state television broadcast seen by its 23 million people that the latest satellite had not made it into orbit.
The failure is the first major and very public challenge for the third of the Kim dynasty to rule North Korea just months into the leadership of a man believed to be in his late 20s.
"It could be indication of subtle change in the North Korean leadership in how they handle these things, something that may be different from the past," said Baek Seung-joo of the Korea Institute of Defense Analyses a thinktank affiliated with South Korean Defence Ministry.
"I mean it would have been unthinkable for them to admit this kind of failure in the past, something that could be seen as an international humiliation. The decision to have come out with the admission had to come from Kim Jong-un."
Embarrassingly, the rocket flew for just a few minutes covering a little over 100km to explode over a sea separating the Korean peninsula and China, far less than the last rocket in 2009 that travelled 3,800km, alarming Japan which it over-flew.
The launch is in breach of United Nations Security Council sanctions and drew condemnation from the United States, Russia, South Korea and Japan and threats to tighten already harsh sanctions aimed at stopping Pyongyang developing nuclear weapons.
The concern is that North Korea is using launches to perfect the kind of technology that would enable it to build a missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to the United States.
North Korea has repeatedly defended its right to launch rockets for what it says are peaceful purposes and may have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the failed launch.
China, the North's main backer, again appealed for "calm", although its failure to dissuade Pyongyang from undertaking the launch despite propping up the ailing and impoverished state, showed the limitations of its diplomacy, analysts said.
"Despite the failure of its attempted missile launch, North Korea's provocative action threatens regional security, violates international law and contravenes its own recent commitments,"White House spokesman Jay Carney said in a statement.