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North Korea says its attempt to launch its first spy satellite ended in failure

TV show news flash about North Korea's missile launch in Tokyo Wednesday, May 31, 2023. South Korea's military says North Korea has launched a purported space-launch vehicle after announcing a plan to put its first military spy satellite into orbit.
Kyodo News via AP
TV show news flash about North Korea's missile launch in Tokyo Wednesday, May 31, 2023. South Korea's military says North Korea has launched a purported space-launch vehicle after announcing a plan to put its first military spy satellite into orbit.

Updated May 30, 2023 at 9:22 PM ET

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea's attempt to launch its first spy satellite fell flat on Wednesday when its rocket malfunctioned, sending the launch vehicle tumbling into the Yellow Sea. The North said it would try again as soon as possible.

The botched launch triggered false alarms in South Korea and Japan. Cell phones in Seoul blared out warnings to prepare to seek shelter, while alerts in Japan advised residents on the island of Okinawa to take cover. Both were later canceled when it became clear that the projectile posed no threat.

North Korean state media reported that the satellite was launched from the Sohae satellite launch site and flew south, off the west coast of the Korean Peninsula. But the rocket's engine was unstable, and its second stage malfunctioned.

South Korea's military released pictures of what appear to be pieces of the rocket, which it salvaged from sea, possibly allowing the South to analyze the North's rocket technology.

Japan, which had ordered its military to shoot down any projectile entering Japanese territory, lodged a diplomatic protest over the launch.

The U.S. and South Korea condemned the launch, which they said involves ballistic missile technology and violates multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions.

North Korea had notified Japan and the International Maritime Organization that it would launch the satellite between May 31 and June 11.

In a speech to a ruling Workers Party plenum in January, 2021, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had mentioned military reconnaissance satellites as one item on a list of technologies Pyongyang intends to develop.

This photo provided by the North Korean government shows what it says is a test of a rocket with the test satellite at the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground in North Korea on Dec. 18, 2022. The content of this image is as provided and cannot be independently verified. On May 30, North Korea confirmed plans to launch its first military spy satellite in June.
/ AP
/
AP
This photo provided by the North Korean government shows what it says is a test of a rocket with the test satellite at the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground in North Korea on Dec. 18, 2022. The content of this image is as provided and cannot be independently verified. On May 30, North Korea confirmed plans to launch its first military spy satellite in June.

They include tactical nuclear weapons, hypersonic missiles and submarine-launched missiles, all of which the North has tested since then.

While international condemnation focused on the ballistic missile technology involved in launching the satellite, the satellite's surveillance capabilities are also a concern, as they could help North Korea's military more effectively target U.S. and South Korean forces.

"Not just with missiles, but with other various North Korean weapons systems, like long-range artillery, they need to be able to see to launch an attack," says Kim Byung-joo, an opposition Democratic Party lawmaker and retired South Korean army four-star general.

To put it metaphorically, he adds: "North Korea has a strong punch, but it hasn't been able to strike well because its eyesight wasn't very good."

North Korea says it needs the spy satellites to monitor what it sees as hostile moves by the U.S. and South Korean militaries, from joint military drills to the deployment of U.S. military hardware to the Korean Peninsula.

Today's launch was the North's first satellite launch since 2016. Some experts doubt that any of North Korea's previously launched satellites function and are mostly cover for ballistic missile tests.

By contrast, South Korea this month successfully launched its homegrown Nuri rocket, carrying eight small satellites into space.

Nuclear envoys of the U.S., South Korea and Japan on Monday promised a "stern, unified response" from the international community, if Pyongyang proceeded with its satellite launch.

But the options for response are limited, especially with the U.N. Security Council divided and Russia and China likely to veto further sanctions.

Nuclear negotiations have been stalled since 2019. Pyongyang has rebuffed U.S. attempts to resume talks, and both Seoul and Washington have focused more on military deterrence.

"South Korean people and the Democratic Party are concerned that the Yoon Suk Yeol and Biden administrations are too focused on military responses," says lawmaker Kim Byung-joo, and are "neglectful of opening dialogues to make peace."

NPR's Se Eun Gong contributed to this report in Seoul.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.