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N. Korea defiantly fires rocket that splinters, drops into sea

North Korea's much-anticipated rocket launch ended quickly in failure early today, splintering into pieces over the Yellow Sea soon after liftoff.

North Korea acknowledged in an announcement broadcast on state TV that a satellite launched hours earlier from the west coast failed to enter into orbit. The United States and South Korea also declared the launch a failure.

The Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite was fired from the Sohae Satellite Launching Station in Tongchang-ri along the west coast at 7:38 this morning (6:38 p.m. Thursday EDT) but failed to reach orbit, the state-run Korean Central News Agency said.

"Scientists, technicians and experts are now looking into the cause of the failure," KCNA said.

U.S. and South Korean officials said hours earlier that the rocket splintered into pieces about a minute after liftoff over the Yellow Sea, calling it a provocative failed test of missile technology.

In response to the launch, Washington announced that it was suspending plans to contribute food aid to the North in exchange for a rollback of its nuclear programs.

The United States, Japan, Britain and other nations had been urging North Korea to cancel a launch seen as a covert test of the rocket technology also used to send a long-range missile to strike America.

North Korea refused to back down, saying the rocket would only carry a civilian satellite, touting it as a major technological achievement to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of the country's founder, Kim Il Sung, on Sunday.

Still, the rocket failure is a major embarrassment for Pyongyang, which has invited dozens of international journalists to observe the rocket launch and other celebrations.

It has staked its pride on the satellite, seeing it as a show of strength amid economic hardship while Kim Il Sung's young grandson, Kim Jong Un, solidifies power after the death of his father, longtime leader Kim Jong Il, four months ago.

"It blows a big hole in the birthday party," said Victor Cha, former director for Asia policy in the U.S. National Security Council, contacted in Washington. "It's terribly embarrassing for the North."

He said the next step would be to watch whether North Korea conducts a nuclear test, as has been speculated by the South Korean intelligence community. North Korea is reportedly making preparations for such a test soon.

"We have to watch very carefully what they are doing now at the nuclear test site and how they explain this with all those foreign journalists in the country," Cha said.

Japan, which had been prepared to shoot down any rocket flying over its territory, also confirmed a launch from North Korea. "We have confirmed that a certain flying object has been launched and fell after flying for just over a minute," Japanese Defense Minister Naoki Tanaka said, adding that there was no impact on Japanese territory.

North Korean space officials said the Unha-3, or Galaxy-3, rocket was meant to send a satellite into orbit to study crops and weather patterns -- its third bid to launch a satellite since 1998. Officials took foreign journalists to the west coast site to see the rocket and the Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite Sunday in a bid to show its transparency amid accusations of defiance.

"For all their advanced technology, these rockets are fairly fragile things," said Brian Weeden, a technical adviser at Secure World Foundation and former Air Force officer at the U.S. Space Command. "You're looking at a metal cylinder that has fairly thin walls that contains a lot of high-pressure liquid."