SEOUL — North Korea has long been better at making myths than making rockets, but it showed a new face on Friday in acknowledging the failure of the country’s third effort to blast a satellite into space.
Unlike after the previous two setbacks, North Korea didn’t manufacture a tale about a technological triumph. This time, roughly four hours after the Unha-3 rocket fell apart shortly after launch, Pyongyang’s state-run news agency released a brief statement saying that the “earth observation satellite failed to enter its preset orbit.” A news anchorwoman then read the statement on domestic television.
“Scientists, technicians and experts are now looking into the cause of the failure,” the broadcaster told viewers.
The North’s admission marked a surprising reversal of the usual national narrative, which portrays a self-reliant country that thwarts larger imperialist powers with its military and technological might. It also threatened to turn a celebratory week into a humiliating one: Pyongyang’s leaders had planned the rocket launch as a showcase for the 100th birthday party of late leader Kim Il Sung.
The launch required the impoverished North to spend hundreds of millions of dollars, according to estimates — an investment it hoped to use to build national pride and support for new leader Kim Jong Eun, analysts say.
“This a very sensitive time for Kim Jong Eun’s leadership,” said Ryoo Kihl-jae of Seoul’s University of North Korean Studies. “You won’t see protests because of this. But it can introduce an element of doubt” about his ability.
There was no immediate way to gauge public reaction in the North after the admission of failure, and several dozen foreign journalists invited to document the launch were stationed in a media room, surrounded by government handlers. For at least three hours after the 7:39 a.m. blastoff, those minders were kept in the dark about the mission and asked journalists — who had Internet access — to relay outside information, according to a Twitter posting from NBC producer Ed Flanagan.
Some North Korea analysts speculated that Pyongyang eventually came clean about the failure because of the foreign media presence. Others noted that North Korean citizens, despite government attempts to seal outside information, have increasing access to news accounts that filter in from China and might have learned about the failure anyway.
The admission could prompt scattered criticism of the government, but it is “unlikely to be an igniting factor for any substantial changes,” said Shin Beom-chul, a North Korea analyst at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, a think tank in Seoul.
“North Korea is genius in inventing propaganda,” Shin said, “so they may emphasize the difficulty of space experiments and the need for endless efforts to follow Kim Jong Il’s dying instructions.”
“North Koreans may find the failure absurd, because there has been no failure in the history of North Korea,” said Lee Yun-keol, a defector who works at the Seoul-based North Korea Strategic Information Service Center. “But North Korea might use it as a sign of improving transparency.”
The North has long touted its satellite program — which foreign nations see as the cover to test ballistic missile technology — as a key element of its plan to reach first-world-nation status. In a 17-minute documentary about satellites, broadcast on domestic television in 2001 and now available at a government library in Seoul, the North said that satellites could be used to help with weather prediction and harvest estimates. The documentary showed technicians in white smocks analyzing readouts from the Kwangmyongsong-1 satellite, which was launched in 1998 and promptly dropped into the sea, by every account except Pyongyang’s.
When the North attempted to place a satellite into orbit in 2009 — its most recent effort until Friday — the multistage carrier rocket failed when the third stage didn’t fire. Outside accounts, relying on tracking data, said the Unha-2 plummeted into the Pacific Ocean.
But North Korea provided a different account. Kim Jong Il expressed his “great satisfaction” that the Kwangmyongsong-2 satellite had been placed into orbit. A front-page account in the next morning’s state-run newspaper described the device’s nine-minute, two-second path into orbit and said the satellite was now transmitting revolutionary songs at a frequency of 470 MHz.
The last paragraph of that news account looked ahead to the Kim Il Sung centennial and said that a “revolutionary fire is burning to open a strong and prosperous nation by 2012.”
“The launch of this satellite,” the North’s news account said, “signifies the great improvement of space technology and helps unify the nation.”
Special correspondent Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.