Failure to launch – but Pyongyang pays price for rocket test

US food-aid deal collapses following claims that North Korea was testing a long-range missile

The US announced yesterday that it will not deliver on its promise to provide food aid to North Korea after the failed launch of its long-range rocket, which plunged into the sea just over a minute after take-off late on Thursday.

The US and its allies had accused North Korea of attempting to launch a long-range missile, though North Korea maintains that the rocket had been carrying a satellite intended for weather monitoring.

"Their efforts to launch a missile clearly demonstrates that they could not be trusted to keep their commitments," Ben Rhodes, spokesperson for the White House National Security Council, said yesterday. "Therefore, we are not going forward with an agreement to provide them with any assistance."

In February, Washington promised 240,000 tons of food packages to North Korea, where an estimated one-third of children are thought to suffer from severe malnutrition, in return for the nation's pledge to cease its nuclear programme.

An emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council was convened yesterday in the wake of the failed launch. A brief statement afterwards said members had agreed to continue consultations "on an appropriate response" to the launch "in accordance with its responsibilities given the urgency of the matter".

In an unusual step, North Korea admitted the "failure" of the satellite "to enter preset orbit" yesterday. A woman clad in traditional Korean hanbok dress announced the failure on state TV, saying that "scientists, engineers and experts" were seeking the causes but she did not elaborate.

The announcement came four hours after word had already spread around the world. Angus Walker, China correspondent for ITV News, who was in Pyongyang to cover the rocket launch, tweeted yesterday: "Gone midnight in the press centre set up for the rocket launch in North Korea and no official has spoken to reporters to explain failure".

The failure comes as a huge embarrassment for North Korea during the build-up for large-scale celebrations on Sunday to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of North Korea's founding "Great Leader" Kim Il-sung.

In the face of the public-relations disaster, focus was swiftly shifted away from the launch to the nation's new leader Kim Jong-un, who took power after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, last year. Hours afterwards, he was named First Chairman of the powerful National Defence Commission – the latest in a string of titles apparently designed to help strengthen his position. Foreign journalists were taken to a ceremony for the unveiling of statues of Kim Il-sung and his son, Kim Jong-il. New "Supreme Commander" Kim Jong-un was at the centre of leaders ranged in front of the statues, facing several thousand cheering people.

It was thought yesterday that North Korea would remain defiant, even as the United Nations Security Council convened.

South Korean Deputy Defence Minister Lim Kwan-bin told parliament that chances are "very high" that North Korea will carry out another provocative move to improve domestic support.

The Unha-3 rocket lifted off at 7.40 local time (22:40 GMT on Thursday) from a specially prepared launch site in Cholsan County, on the country's western coast, according to South Korean and US monitors. It disintegrated after only a couple of minutes.

A South Korean defence official said the rocket had been on a trajectory that would have taken it over or near the southernmost Japanese island prefecture of Okinawa and past the northern Philippines before landing in the South Pacific.

South Korean sources said the rocket fell into the sea about 140 miles west of Kunsan, a major port on the southwest South Korean coast. Two South Korean destroyers equipped with the latest Aegis radar and ship-to-air missile systems were already patrolling the waters, ready to fire at portions of the rocket if it appeared they might land on South Korean territory.

The destroyers, along with smaller craft and helicopters, churned the waters looking for debris from the rocket, believed to have broken up at the critical first stage of separation after launch.

Kim Tae-woo, a defence analyst and president of the Korea Institute for National Unification, said he believes North Korea is committed to developing missiles and nuclear weapons partly to prove the power of Kim Jong-un, who is thought to be under the control of a clique of generals and relatives. The crash has fuelled fears North Korea may conduct its third underground nuclear test in the near future. "What they are concerned about is not to improve the quality of life of their people, but to consolidate behind Kim Jong-un," he said.

The US, South Korea and Japan all denounced the launch as a violation of UN sanctions.

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