North Korea says spy satellite ‘crashed into sea’

Much trumpeted launch confirmed to have failed after South Korea reported the rocket disappeared from radar early.

South Korean divers salvaging what is suspected to be the debris from the North Korean launch
South Korea is salvaging what it believes to be the debris from the failed launch [The Defense Ministry/Handout via Reuters]

North Korea’s attempt to launch its first military spy satellite has ended in failure after the rocket “crashed into the sea” and Seoul recovered some of the debris, state media said.

The launch, on the first day of a 12-day window it had announced to put the satellite into orbit, took place early on Wednesday, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) announced.

“The ‘Cheollima-1’ crashed into the West Sea of Korea as it lost momentum due to abnormal start-up of the two-stage engine after one step separation while flying normally,” North Korea’s KCNA announced shortly after South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) had said the projectile had disappeared from radar.

The JCS earlier said it had detected the launch at about 6:29am (21:29 GMT on Tuesday), prompting alerts in Seoul and Japan, which were later lifted.

The flight was the nuclear-armed state’s sixth satellite launch attempt and the first since 2016. It was supposed to put North Korea’s first spy satellite in orbit.

The JCS said the rocket had come down in the sea at the point where the exclusive economic zones of China and South Korea meet, and that divers were conducting a salvage operation. Photos released by the defence ministry showed a large cylindrical object tethered to a buoy.

George William Herbert, an adjunct professor at the Middlebury Institute’s Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said the images showed at least part of a rocket, including an “interstage” section designed to connect to another stage.

Herbert told the Reuters news agency that it was probably a liquid-fuel rocket, and the round, brown object inside a propellant tank for either fuel or oxidiser.

A satellite view of the Sohae Satellite Launch Pad. The site is next to the sea.
This satellite picture by Planet Labs PBC shows activity at a newly-built launch pad at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station near Tongchang-ri in North Korea on Tuesday [Planet Labs PBC via AP Photo]

Seoul said Pyongyang might make a second launch attempt before its announced launch window closed on June 11.

Whether that happens, analysts said it was only a matter of time before North Korea had a functioning spy satellite.

“They said they would do it. They are remarkably open about their development plans,” Andrew Lankov, an expert in North Korea at Kookmin University, told Al Jazeera. “They are determined to do it. They have the means. They have the engineers. They have the money. They will do it. Maybe not now. Maybe there will be a few more attempts, but finally they will succeed.”

A satellite launch by North Korea is a breach of United Nations Security Council resolutions that ban the country from using ballistic missile technology.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned the satellite launch and urged Pyongyang to return to denuclearisation talks that have been stalled since 2019.

“The Secretary-General strongly condemns the military satellite launch conducted by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” Stephane Dujarric, the spokesman for the UN chief, said in a statement.

“Any launch using ballistic missile technology is contrary to the relevant Security Council resolutions.”

Officials from South Korea, Japan and the United States spoke on the phone and “strongly condemned” the launch, Japan’s foreign ministry said.

“The three countries will stay vigilant with high sense of urgency,” it said in a statement.

A close up of a barrel shaped object pulled from the sea. There is a brown device inside at the bottom.
Analysts said the debris suggested it was probably a liquid-fuel rocket, and the round, brown object inside a propellant tank for either fuel or oxidiser [The Defense Ministry/Handout via Reuters]

Nuclear-armed North Korea has been rapidly modernising and expanding its weaponry in defiance of UN sanctions and carried out a record number of tests in 2022.

It says its activities are needed for self-defence.

“Pyongyang is concerned that South Korea is successfully deepening trilateral security cooperation with Japan and the United States,” Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, said in emailed comments.

“Given the demonstrated ability of South Korea’s indigenous Nuri rocket to deliver satellites into orbit, the Kim regime likely sees itself in a space race.”

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said earlier this month that the successful launch of a military reconnaissance satellite was an “urgent requirement of the prevailing security environment of the country”.

South Korea successfully launched a commercial-grade satellite for the first time using the Nuri, a domestically produced space rocket, last week.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies