(ATTN: UPDATES with N. Korea's acknowledgement of failure; English-language government statement)
SEOUL, April 13 (Yonhap) -- North Korea defiantly fired off a long-range rocket Friday, but the three-stage craft exploded in mid-air and crashed into the sea shortly after takeoff, South Korean officials said.
The communist nation also acknowledged that the launch went wrong, saying a satellite aboard the rocket failed to enter orbit. It was the first time Pyongyang has admitted failure in a long-range rocket launch.
Still, the launch drew strong condemnation from South Korea, the United States and others as it violated a U.N. resolution that bans the communist nation from any ballistic missile activity that can be used to develop missiles carrying nuclear weapons.
The Unha-3 rocket took off from the Dongchang-ri launch site at 7:39 a.m., but burst into pieces after flying about one or two minutes, Shin Won-shik, a senior Defense Ministry official, said during a briefing.
"The ballistic missile test-firing failed," he said.
After reaching a final altitude of 151 kilometers, the rocket exploded and began falling in about 20 pieces, Shin said. Debris landed over a broad area in waters about 100-150 kilometers off South Korea's west coast, but no damage was reported, he said.
The military is scouring the area, which is within South Korea's exclusive economic zone, to recover debris, Shin said. The South Korean and U.S. militaries are keeping a close watch over the North for any signs of additional provocations, he said.
The North had said it would launch the rocket between April 12 and 16 to put what it claimed to be a satellite into orbit to mark the 100th birthday celebrations for Kim Il-sung, the country's late founder and grandfather of current leader Kim Jong-un.
South Korea, the United States and other regional powers urged Pyongyang to call off the launch, denouncing it as a pretext to disguise a long-range missile test, banned under a U.N. Security Council resolution.
The Council plans to meet Friday (New York time) to discuss the launch, officials said.
Calling the rocket no different from a long-range missile, South Korea condemned the launch as a "provocative act that threatens peace and security on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia" and constitutes a clear violation of the U.N. Security Council resolution.
"North Korea launched a de facto long-range missile, which the North calls an 'application satellite,'" Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan said, reading a government statement after President Lee Myung-bak held an emergency meeting with security ministers.
"The government of the Republic of Korea strongly condemns that the new North Korean leadership pushed forward with the launch, disregarding the international community's unified call for withdrawal of the launch. North Korea must be held duly accountable for its actions," he said.
South Korea wants the U.N. Security Council to punish the North, officials said.
"Regardless of its success or failure, we urge the U.N. Security Council to take action against North Korea's rocket launch," a senior official at Seoul's foreign ministry said, on condition of anonymity.
The United States also condemned the launch as a provocative act undermining regional security.
"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," White House press secretary Jay Carney said in a statement.
The U.S. remains vigilant in the face of North Korean provocations and is fully committed to the security of its allies in the region, he added. "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."
Such provocative behavior is not an answer to the impoverished communist nation's future, Carney said, stressing the Obama administration is still ready to help Pyongyang should it abide by international law, live up to its obligations and work for the well-being of its 24 million people.
Foreign Minister Kim and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke by phone and pledged to take "resolute" action against the North's rocket launch. They also agreed to refer the issue to the U.N. Security Council, an official said.
During a 10-minute conversation, Kim and Clinton "shared the view that the international community should send a clear and strong message to North Korea," the official said on the condition of anonymity.
North Korea announced the rocket launch plan just weeks after it reached a deal with the United States in February under which it agreed to put a moratorium on missile and nuclear tests and halt uranium enrichment in exchange for American food aid.
Washington officials have warned Pyongyang that a rocket launch would be a deal-breaker. The launch is expected to cast further clouds over the prospects of resuming the long-stalled six-party talks aimed at ending Pyongyang's nuclear programs.
Experts in Washington said the launch has effectively suspended negotiations, perhaps for good.
"It is unfortunate that North Korea has decided to go ahead with this launch," Gordon Flake, executive director of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation told Yonhap News Agency. "With this action, the pathway back to negotiations has been effectively closed down, and the prospects for increased tension and crisis have increased dramatically."
Marcus Noland, a senior researcher at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said it was unfortunate the North "decided to defy the U.N. Security Council and world opinion in engaging in this provocative act."
"The good news is that the launch may have been unsuccessful if it did indeed malfunction before completing its intended mission," he said, adding that the failure proved North Korean missiles may be unreliable and hence may not pose an immediate threat.
"North Korea's ability to gain useful data and experience from this test may not be so great if the missile malfunctioned," he said.
The North's nuclear and missile programs have long been a regional security concern. The country is believed to have advanced ballistic missile technology, though it is still not clear whether it has mastered the technology to put a nuclear warhead on a missile.
South Korean officials have said the North has also apparently been making preparations to conduct a third nuclear test by digging a new underground tunnel at its Punggye-ri nuclear test site. Two previous tests were conducted in 2006 and 2009.
A nuclear test following a long-range missile test fits the pattern of North Korean behavior.
In 2006, the provocative regime carried out its first nuclear test, three months after the test-firing of its long-range Taepodong-2 rocket. The second nuclear test in 2009 came just one month after a long-range rocket launch.
South Korean officials said they cannot rule out the possibility of North Korea setting off a nuclear device built with highly enriched uranium this time, unlike two previous tests where plutonium was used.
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