x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

North Korea rocket fails; nuke test next?

The North Korean rocket flew for just one or two minutes, reaching an altitude of 151 kilometres before exploding into about 20 pieces.

BEIJING // North Korea's rocket launch was supposed to demonstrate the country's technological prowess ahead of celebrations this weekend to mark 100 years since the birth of the country's founder, Kim Il-sung.

Instead, it failed almost the moment it began, with the Unha-3 rocket disintegrating and plunging into the sea within minutes of taking off yesterday morning.

The failure, most analysts say, will prompt Pyongyang to press ahead with a controversial underground nuclear test.

The rocket flew for just one or two minutes, reaching an altitude of 151 kilometres before exploding into about 20 pieces and falling into international waters between South Korea and China, according to South Korea's defence ministry.

Several hours after the 7.38am launch from a site in the country's north-west, North Korea admitted its failure, an unusual move for a country that has more often maintained the pretence that such events have gone as planned.

Although officially being carried out to send an observation satellite into space, the launch was seen by much of the international community as a test for ballistic missile technology that could be used to carry nuclear warheads.

Analysts believe North Korea's inexperienced leader, Kim Jong-un, was also keen to press ahead with the launch to consolidate his position after taking over on the death in December of his father, Kim Jong-il.

South Korea and the United States said North Korea breached UN resolutions banning it from carrying out missile tests and pledged to refer the launch to the UN Security Council.

The White House press secretary, Jay Carney, criticised Pyongyang for "provocative action" that jeopardised security, violated international law and broke promises Pyongyang has made.

The announcement of the launch caused Washington to discard plans to send food aid to the country, something it had pledged to do on condition the communist country scaled back its nuclear programme and ended ballistic missile tests.

Yesterday's failure, while not unusual for such rocket launches, indicates the challenges North Korea faces to develop missile technology that could transport nuclear warheads long distances and threaten countries such as the United States. Early last year, the then US defence secretary, Robert Gates, warned that Pyongyang could have an intercontinental ballistic missile that could threaten US territory within five years.

An important question now is whether North Korea goes ahead with an underground nuclear test. Recent satellite images indicated it is preparing for such a test and rocket launches in 2006 and 2009 were followed by nuclear tests.

Yet some believe the failure of the rocket launch offers an opportunity for the international community to try to ensure the test does not happen.

Paik Hak-soon, a senior fellow at South Korea's Sejong Institute, said the United States now has a chance to go back to the negotiating table and offer food aid if North Korean abandons the test.

"I think the failure has prepared a small space ... for conducting dialogue between the United States and North Korea. If the US does not use it by talking, then North Korea will go for the nuclear test."

Others believe Pyongyang should not, as they see it, be rewarded for a provocative action.

"After the failure, North Korea will definitely test the nuclear weapon to compensate," said Park Jin-keol from the NK Network, a Seoul-based organisation opposed to the North Korean regime.

"The launch is a violation of [North Korea's] own promises and international agreements. Washington and Seoul must be vigilant."

The role of China, North Korea's only real ally and a significant aid provider, will be crucial. Some analysts say that because the nuclear test is so controversial, Beijing will pressure North Korea's leaders not to go ahead.

Tomorrow's anniversary marks 100 years since the birth of Kim Il-sung, the North Korean founder around whom a personality cult was built.

The pattern continued under his son, the late Kim Jong-il, who this week was named "eternal general secretary" of the Workers' Party of Korea and "eternal chairman" of the National Defence Commission.

The 20-something Kim Jong-un is now in charge of both organisations, having on Wednesday been made first secretary of the Workers' Party before formally taking over the defence commission's chairmanship yesterday.

Observers are watching closely to see if he follows the hardline policies of his father and grandfather, or moves to carry out the type of economic reforms that China has long encouraged.