North Korea failed in its highly vaunted effort to fire a satellite into orbit, military and private experts said Sunday after reviewing detailed tracking data that showed the missile and payload fell into the sea. Some said the failure undercut the North Korean campaign to come across as a fearsome adversary able to hurl deadly warheads halfway around the globe.
Defying world opinion, North Korea moved steadily and fairly openly in recent weeks toward launching a long-range rocket that Western experts saw as a major step toward a military weapon.
The launch of the three-stage rocket Sunday, which the North Korea government portrayed as a success — even bragging that the supposed satellite payload was now broadcasting patriotic tunes from space — outraged Japan and South Korea, led to widespread rebuke by President Barack Obama and other leaders, and forced the U.N. Security Council to go into an emergency session.
But looking at the launching from a purely technical vantage point, space experts said the failure represented a blow that in all likelihood would seriously delay the missile's debut.
"It's got to be embarrassing," said Geoffrey Forden, a missile expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He said he could imagine "heads flying if the 'Dear Leader' finds out the satellite didn't fly into orbit," referring to the name North Koreans are obliged to use when speaking of Kim Jong-il, North Korea's reclusive leader.
North Korea's official news agency said Kim attended the launch. Analysts dismissed the idea that the rocket firing could represent a furtive success, calling the failure consistent with past North Korean fumbles and suggesting it might reveal a significant quality-control problem in one of the world's most isolated nations.
"It's a setback," said Jonathan McDowell, a Harvard astronomer who tracks satellites and rocket launches. "The missile doesn't represent any kind of near-term threat."
The U.S. Northern Command, based in Colorado Springs, Colo., issued a statement Sunday that portrayed the launch as a major failure. It based its information on a maze of federal radars, spy ships and satellites that monitor global missile firings.
The command said that North Korea launched a Taepodong-2 missile at 11:30 a.m. local time, or 10:30 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time on Saturday, and that its first stage fell into the Sea of Japan, which analysts had expected as the point of splashdown in a successful launching.
But "the remaining stages along with the payload itself landed in the Pacific Ocean," the statement added. Analysts had expected the rocket's second stage to land in the Pacific but its third stage and its ostensible satellite payload to fly into space.
North Korea is often portrayed as technically adept when it comes to bombs and rockets. But Western analysts say that image is in doubt amid rising questions of basic competence.