Seen is a part of North Korea’s rocket launched May 31. This was found in waters about 200 kilometers west of Eocheong Island. Credit: South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea said May 31 that its first spy satellite launch ended in failure after the carrier rocket’s second stage malfunctioned. 

Despite the failure, the launch triggered international condemnation because a satellite launch by the nuclear-armed North violates U.N. Security Council resolutions that ban the country from conducting any launch based on ballistic technology. The White House called the launch a “brazen violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions” in a May 30 statement

The rocket, named Chollima-1, crashed into the sea nearly 200 kilometers west of South Korea’s southwestern island of Eocheong, after lifting off from a launch site in Tongchang-ri in North Pyongan Province at 5:29 p.m. Eastern May 30, according to South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff. The flight lasted about six minutes, it added. The rocket flew southward, carrying the North’s first military reconnaissance satellite, Malligyong-1. The rocket and the satellite are brand-new, suggesting their capacity and other technical details are shrouded in mystery. But some information is expected to emerge as the South Korean military recovered parts of the launch vehicle near the crash site, where the exclusive economic zones of China and South Korea meet. 

The military shared pictures of debris pulled from the water, including a large cylindrical object tethered to a buoy.

About one hour after the rocket lifted off, the South Korean military announced that the rocket “fell into the waters after an abnormal flight.” It was followed by the North’s official announcement of the launch failure. 

The rocket plunged into the sea “after losing thrust due to the abnormal starting of the second-stage engine after the separation of the first stage during the normal flight,” said North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). The agency said the failure could be blamed for “the low reliability and stability of the new-type engine system applied to carrier rocket Chollima-1 and the unstable character of the fuel used.” It did not provide further details. 

The KCNA said the National Aerospace Development Administration (NADA) would investigate the “serious defects” and take action to overcome them before conducting a second launch as soon as possible.

The May 31 flight was the North’s sixth satellite launch attempt and the first since 2016, according to a report issued in November 2022 by the Institute for National Security Strategy (INSS). North Korea has two satellites in orbit — KMS ​​3-2 and KMS-4 — launched in 2012 and 2016, respectively, although they are non-functional, according to Voice of America.

Denouncing the launch, the White House said President Joe Biden and his security team are assessing the situation in coordination with the allies and partners.

“The United States strongly condemns the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) for its launch using ballistic missile technology, which is a brazen violation of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions, raises tensions, and risks destabilizing the security situation in the region and beyond,” National Security Council spokesperson Adam Hodge said in the May 30 statement. DPRK is the North’s official name.

In a separate release, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command stressed the “ironclad” security commitment to South Korea and Japan, saying it will continue to monitor the situation.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres “strongly” condemned the launch and reiterated his call for the North to cease such acts and to “swiftly” resume dialogue for peace, his spokesperson said in a statement. The top nuclear envoys of South Korea, the United States and Japan held three-way phone talks and also “strongly condemned” the launch, saying that it cannot be justified in any way, according to South Korea’s foreign ministry.

Park Si-soo covers space industries in South Korea, Japan and other Asian countries. Park worked at The Korea Times — South Korea's leading English language newspaper — from 2007 to 2020. He earned a master’s degree in science journalism from Korea...