SEOUL — Defying the international community and risking further sanctions, North Korea launched a long-range rocket Friday morning that broke up within two minutes of takeoff and was deemed a “failure” by South Korea.

North Korea launched the rocket from rural Tonchang-ri at 7:39 a.m., but the three-stage rocket flew to a height of only 94 miles before exploding over South Korea’s Baeknyeong Island, Maj. Gen. Shin Wonsik, a policy chief at the Ministry of National Defense, said in a televised press conference.

Initial indications are that the missile’s first stage fell into the sea 102.5 miles west of Seoul, according to a statement from North American Aerospace Defense Command in Colorado. The other two stages were assessed to have failed and no debris fell on land.

North Korea has said it merely planned only to send a satellite into space for observation purposes aboard a civilian Unha-3 launch vehicle.

But South Korea and the U.S. both say the launch was a missile test.

It was the collective judgment of the U.S. government that we could designate this a Taepodong-2 missile,” Pentagon spokesman George Little said Friday morning in Washington.

Despite a record of recent failures, it’s too soon to conclude North Korea’s missile program is not a threat, Little said.

A few missile launches doesn’t necessarily paint the big picture of what the range of North Korean capabilities are, so we have to be vigilant here and not reach any conclusions too soon,” he said.

North Korea acknowledged that the launch was unsuccessful, saying that a remote sensing satellite launched Friday morning had failed to enter orbit. In a three-sentence posting on the Korean Central News Agency site, the North said that scientists, technicians and experts were trying to find out why the launch had failed.

The failed launch came as North Korea is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of the country’s founder, Kim Il Sung, and has been widely viewed as an effort to shore up support for the country’s new young leader, Kim Jong Un.

Shin said South Korea considered the launch to be a serious military threat, and the U.S. and South Korea were watching for possible signs of military maneuvering by the North, including indications that the North might soon conduct its third nuclear test.

Satellite photos released earlier this week showed evidence that the North is digging a tunnel that authorities believe is a precursor to an underground nuclear test, which, along with Friday’s missile launch, is likely to be viewed as a violation of U.N. resolutions banning North Korean nuclear development.

Neighboring countries immediately condemned the launch, and the White House issued a statement calling the launch a provocation that “threatens regional security, violates international law and contravenes its own recent commitments.”

“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. North Korea’s long-standing development of missiles and pursuit of nuclear weapons have not brought it security — and never will,” the statement said.

The U.S. has said in recent weeks that it likely would not send promised food aid to North Korea if the launch took place.

In the lead-up to Friday morning’s launch, the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force deployed six ships to the East China Sea and the Sea of Japan, JMSDF officials said, including three of their four Kongo-class destroyers equipped with the Aegis ballistic missile defense system.

The system was supplied to the Japanese by the U.S. government and is a collection of sensors, computers, software, displays, weapon launchers and weapons that have the ability to track a missile or rocket via satellite and shoot it down using an SM-3 or SM-2 interceptor missile.

The Japanese had also readied Patriot missile batteries in Tokyo and Okinawa.

The bilateral missile defense operations center at Yokota Air Base was activated for the first time as part of the U.S.-Japan joint watch of the failed launch. The underground operations center connects U.S. Forces Japan headquarters (and 5th Air Force) at Yokota with Japan's Air Defense Command, which recently moved to the American air base in western Tokyo.

The half-billion-dollar relocation was funded by the Japanese and has been touted by the longtime allies as a step toward integrating missile defense operations.

Lt. Choji Yoshida, a spokesman for the JMSDF in Sasebo, Japan, said their ships would return to port as soon as they could confirm there was no danger to the Japanese homeland.

Stars and Stripes reported yesterday that the U.S. Navy had deployed an unknown number of naval assets to the region ahead of the launch, including Aegis-equipped vessels, and that they were believed to be mainly gathering information, although equipped to fire upon the rocket as well. U.S. Navy officials in the region had no comment on the launch on Friday morning.

Stars and Stripes’ Matt Burke and Elena Sugiyama contributed to this report.

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Yoo Kyong Chang is a reporter/translator covering the U.S. military from Camp Humphreys, South Korea. She graduated from Korea University and also studied at the University of Akron in Ohio.

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