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North Korea rocket breaks up after much-touted launch

NBC's Richard Engel describes how North Korean officials handled the failed rocket launch with the invited international press.

PYONGYANG, North Korea -- North Korea's long-range rocket failed early Friday, U.S. officials said, calling it a blow for the reclusive state's propoganda efforts.

The rocket broke up about 90 seconds after taking off, an official told NBC News.

The rocket was launched from Tongchang-ri, on North Korea's west coast and flew about 75 miles, Japanese broadcaster NHK said.

The South Korean army said rocket debris crashed off Kunsan, home to a U.S. air base on South Korea's west coast.

NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, said the rocket's first stage fell into the sea and two other stages failed.

There were no casualties nor was there any threat to anybody on land, U.S. officials told NBC News.

"All indications are that it failed," one official said, adding that they are still looking into it.

David Guttenfelder / AP

North Korean press center workers are surrounded by international journalists trying to gather news on the launch inside a hotel press center Friday in Pyongyang, North Korea.

The South Korean Defense Ministry announced that North Korea fired the long range rocket Friday morning around 7:39 a.m.

U.S. officials said the launch was monitored by U.S. surveillance satellites, unmanned drones and six anti-missile U.S. Navy warships, NBC News reported. The rocket was also traced by powerful U.S. military radars at sea in the region and in Alaska, NBC News 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," the White House said Thursday night in a prepared statement. "North Korea is only further isolating itself by engaging in provocative acts, and is wasting its money on weapons and propaganda displays while the North Korean people go hungry."

The launch, which North Korea's neighbors and the West said was a disguised ballistic missile test, was to take a three-stage rocket over a sea separating the Korean peninsula from China before releasing a weather satellite into orbit when the third stage was to fire over waters near the Philippines.

Regional powers also worried the launch could be the prelude to another nuclear test, such as one the hermit state conducted in 2009.

North Korea had announced it was planning the launch of an observation satellite to celebrate Sunday's centennial of the birth of Kim Il Sung, the country's late founder.

Hours later, North Korea's state-run news agency said the satellite had failed to reach orbit, and that scientists were searching for a cause of the failure.

"There is not a lot of information being disseminated at this point," said Richard Engel, NBC News' chief foreign correspondent, who is in North Korea. "But we did hear just a short while ago after the launch took place, after it was confirmed internationally, some martial music playing in the street, some fighter jets flying overhead. This is a national celebration time in North Korea and this rocket launch and this satellite launch, as the government describes it, is seen as a source of pride."

Now led by 20-something Kim Jong-un, the third of his line to hold power, North Korea had planned to make 2012 the year in which it became a "strong and prosperous nation" and the launch was part of a program to burnish its credentials.

North Korea's rocket had no impact on Japanese territory, Japanese Defense Minister Naoki Tanaka said.

The United States, Britain, Japan and others have called the launch a violation of U.N. resolutions prohibiting North Korea from nuclear and ballistic missile activity.

The U.S. earlier canceled food aid when North Korea announced the rocket test, despite Pyongyang's February agreement to suspend all tests in exchange for food, NBC News reported.

U.S. military experts told NBC News that the best example of what the North Koreans were denied because of sanctions is advanced electronics for guidance systems, potententially contributing to the failure.

U.S. officials also told NBC News the failed rocket launch was a propaganda effort.

"That effort clearly failed and will have ramifications internally,'' an Obama administration official said.

"This launch was also a chance for North Korea to showcase its military wares to prospective customers," the official said. "The failure will make those customers think twice before buying anything.''

"Their efforts to draw attention to the program certainly seem to have backfired in this case," an official told NBC News. "Everyone will be watching closely to see how the government handles this first real test."

US officials say an attempted rocket launch in North Korea ended in failure when the rocket broke up shortly after launch. NBC's Bob Windrem reports.


Earlier Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said after meeting with Group of Eight foreign ministers that the U.S. would go to the U.N. Security Council to seek action. U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice is the rotating president of the Security Council and controls when to call a meeting.

The U.N. Security Council planned to meet 10 a.m. EDT Friday to discuss the launch, diplomats said.

Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said, "Predictably, diplomatic overtures with North Korea have failed once more, and now an avowed enemy of freedom, with a new and unpredictable leadership, possesses nuclear weapons and is testing their capability to strike long-range targets, including the American homeland."

He called for more investment in U.S. national missile defenses.

This article includes reporting by The Associated Press and Reuters.

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