SEOUL, South Korea — Defying weeks of international warnings of more censure and further sanctions, North Korea on Friday launched a rocket, a belligerent act that the United States called a cover for developing an intercontinental ballistic missile that one day might be able to carry a nuclear warhead.
But the three-stage rocket appeared to break up and collapse moments after the launch.
Officials from the United States, South Korea and Japan called the launch a failure, and the Japanese government said the rocket had disintegrated into several pieces while still in North Korean territory or over South Korean waters.
“We believe that the rocket fell apart several minutes after the takeoff,” said Kim Min-seok, a spokesman for South Korea’s Defense Ministry.
He said the assessment of both the South Korean and U.S. intelligence monitors was that “the North Korean missile launching has failed.”
The rocket, called the Unha-3, blasted off from the Soehae launch site near North Korea’s western corner with China, at about 7:39 a.m., the South Korea Defense Ministry spokesman said.
In Washington, a senior Obama administration official said the United States would follow through on its threat to suspend a recent agreement to supply food aid to North Korea despite the launch’s failure. The official also said the failure had proved the effectiveness of sanctions already in place on North Korea, which had deprived the isolated country of access needed for a successful program.
There was no immediate announcement of the launch from the North.
In Tokyo, Japan’s government spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura, said that a U.S. satellite had detected a launch at 7:40, but the object appeared to break apart soon after takeoff. He said that the Japanese prime minister convened an emergency meeting of his national security advisers, but that no object had been detected approaching Japanese territory.
Fujimura called on the Japanese people “to go about your daily lives,” saying there was no reason to panic.
Japan’s Defense Ministry said the object appeared to break up one minute after launch.
North Korea had said the rocket would fly south, carrying its Kwangmyongsong-3 communications satellite, and has insisted the launch was for peaceful purposes.
The North’s two previous attempts to put versions of Kwangmyongsong into orbit — one in 1998 and the second in 2009 — both failed to reach the required altitudes, according to experts, and the payloads plopped into the sea. The North has insisted that never happened. To this day, it still boasts that a satellite is in orbit, broadcasting patriotic songs.
South Korea, Japan and the Philippines — the countries near the North Korean rocket’s projected trajectory — were on heightened alert in case the launching went awry and might endanger their citizens or properties.