SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea said Thursday that its second attempt to launch a spy satellite had failed again but vowed to make another attempt in October, demonstrating a willingness to endure flops to acquire a key military asset coveted by leader Kim Jong Un.
The failed launch prompted neighboring Japan to issue a brief “J-alert” ordering some residents to evacuate to safe places as the North Korean rocket flew over its southernmost islands of Okinawa to the Pacific Ocean.
The North’s space agency said it used the new-type carrier rocket Chollima-1 to put the reconnaissance satellite Malligyong-1 into orbit. It said the flights of the rocket’s first and second stages were normal, but the launch eventually failed due to an error in the emergency blasting system during the third-stage flight, according to the official Korean Central News Agency.
The National Aerospace Development Administration said it would make a third launch attempt in October after studying what went wrong with Thursday’s launch. The agency added that “the cause of the relevant accident is not a big issue in terms of the reliability of cascade engines and the system.”
“Kim may have licked his wounds after this second failure, but he’s already dusting himself off and moving on,” said Soo Kim, an expert with Virginia-based consultancy LMI and a former CIA analyst. “In previous cases where the North has failed a weapons demonstration, we never saw them give up but show greater perseverance in view of their longer-term ambitions.”
Earlier Thursday, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement that it detected the rocket flying above international waters off the Korean Peninsula’s west coast after its liftoff at the North’s northwestern Tongchang-ri area at 3:50 a.m. The site is where North Korea’s main space launch center is located. The North made a failed launch of a spy satellite there in late May.
South Korea’s military said the launch of the rocket violated U.N. Security Council resolutions that ban any launches by North Korea using ballistic technologies. Japan’s chief Cabinet secretary, Hirokazu Matsuno, called the North Korean launch a “threat to peace and stability.”
Adrienne Watson, a spokesperson for the White House’s National Security Council, said the United States strongly condemns the launch, adding that it involved technologies directly related to the North’s intercontinental ballistic missile program. Watson said Pyongyang must immediately cease its provocative actions and instead choose engagement.
In a phone call, senior diplomats from the U.S., Japan and South Korea condemned the North Korean launch, saying the North's repeated provocations will only result in strengthening a Washington-Tokyo-Seoul cooperation, according to Seoul and Tokyo officials.
In its first launch attempt, a North Korean rocket carrying a spy satellite plunged into the sea soon after liftoff. Like it did on Thursday, North Korea quickly acknowledged the failure of the earlier launch as well, saying the crash happened because the Chollima-1 rocket lost thrust between launch stages.
“As for the admission, there’s probably no point or gain from denying or trying to cover up the failure. If anything, denying it would make Kim look even worse,” Soo Kim, the analyst, said. “Today’s failure, in short, is just a slight scratch that can easily buffed with a comeback -- whether that’s a third satellite launch that’s successful, or an advancement in its nuclear and missile capability remains to be seen.”
Ankit Panda, an expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, noted the North Korean statement is “rather matter-of-fact and technical on the nature of the failure as it was last time.”
“NADA appears to still be under time pressures to succeed with a space launch given the commitment to an October launch,” Panda said. “That may be enough time for a new iteration. There’s no reason to think we won’t see another launch attempt in that time frame.”
South Korea’s military recovered some of the debris after the first launch and said in early July that the North Korean satellite wasn’t advanced enough to conduct military reconnaissance. Some civilian experts said the spy satellite earlier disclosed by the North’s state media were likely capable of detecting only big targets like warships or planes. They said by having several such satellites, North Korea could still observe South Korea at all times.
South Korean officials said they began work to retrieve the wreckage after Thursday's launch as well.
Thursday’s launch came three days after the U.S. and South Korean militaries kicked off annual military drills that North Korea calls an invasion rehearsal. North Korea’s state media said the 11-day U.S.-South Korean exercises are increasing the danger of a nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula.
South Korea’s spy agency told lawmakers last week it spotted signs that North Korea was preparing for the test-flights of intercontinental ballistic missiles and other provocative weapons. On Monday, KCNA said Kim had observed the test firings of strategic cruise missiles.
Since the start of 2022, North Korea has test-fired around 100 missiles in a torrid run of military demonstrations. North Korea says its weapons testing is part of efforts to bolster its nuclear deterrent to counter increasing U.S.-led military threats. But many experts say North Korea aims to modernize its weapons arsenal to boost its leverage to wrest greater concessions from the U.S.
A spy satellite is among an array of high-tech weapons systems Kim Jong Un has publicly vowed to acquire. Others weapons on his wish-list are a multi-warhead missile, a nuclear-powered submarine, a solid-propellant intercontinental ballistic missile and a hypersonic missile.
Since 2017, North Korea has performed a slew of intercontinental ballistic missile tests, demonstrating its potential ability to send missiles anywhere in the continental U.S. But experts say North Korea still has some technological hurdles to clear before obtaining functioning nuclear missiles.
The U.N. Security Council failed to adopt further sanctions over the North’s recent series of missile launches because permanent veto-wielding members Russia and China oppose them, underscoring a divide that has deepened over Russia’s war on Ukraine.
Associated Press writers Kim Tong-hyung in Seoul and Yuri Kageyama in Tokyo contributed to this report.