SEOUL, South Korea – South Korea's first rocket launch failed to push a satellite into orbit but may still anger rival North Korea, coming just months after the communist nation's own launch drew international condemnation.
Vice Science Minister Kim Jung-hyun told reporters Wednesday that one of two covers for the satellite apparently failed to come off, making it drop back toward Earth. The satellite is thought to have burned up while re-entering the atmosphere, he said.
The failure Tuesday dealt a blow to Seoul's quest to become a regional space power. It comes against the complex backdrop of relations on the Korean peninsula — and recent signs that months of heightened tension over the North's nuclear program may be easing.
A South Korean newspaper reported Tuesday that North Korea has invited two U.S. envoys for the first nuclear negotiations between the two countries during President Barack Obama's administration, but Washington quickly said it has no immediate plans to send the envoys to Pyongyang.
North Korea gave no immediate reaction to the rocket launch but has said it would be "watching closely" to see if the U.S. and regional powers refer the matter to the U.N. Security Council. A launch by North Korea in April was suspected to be a disguised test of long-range missile technology and drew a U.N. rebuke.
The North regarded the reaction as discriminatory, insisting it fired a satellite into space, although experts say no such satellite has been detected. North Korea, unlike the South, is banned from any ballistic activity by Security Council resolutions as part of efforts to eliminate its nuclear and long-range missile programs.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly spoke in support of South Korea, saying it has pledged to develop rockets for peaceful purposes only, and that there was no indication the launch was "in any way inconsistent with its international obligations and international commitments."
The launch was South Korea's first of a rocket from its own territory. It was a two-stage Naro rocket whose first stage was designed by Russia. It lifted off from South Korea's space center on Oenaro Island, about 290 miles (465 kilometers) south of Seoul.
The domestically built satellite was to observe the atmosphere and oceans.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak called the launch a "half success."
"We must further strive to realize the dream of becoming a space power," Lee said, according to his office. Among Asian countries, China has conducted three manned space flights, and Japan and India have launched satellites into space.
Kim Tae-woo, a senior analyst of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, said that despite the North's stance, Tuesday's launch was unlikely to have major implications on inter-Korean relations.
In recent weeks, the North has become markedly more conciliatory toward both the United States and South Korea.
Earlier this month, it freed two American journalists following a trip to Pyongyang by former President Bill Clinton. It has also freed a South Korean detainee, agreed to lift restrictions on border crossings with the South and resume suspended inter-Korean projects in industry and tourism.
North Korea has long sought direct negotiations with Washington about its nuclear program and other issues. The U.S. says it is willing to hold bilateral talks, but only within the framework of six-nation disarmament talks involving the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Russia and Japan, from which North Korea withdrew in April.
Associated Press writers Jae-soon Chang and Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, Jin-man Lee in Goheung, South Korea, Steve Gutterman in Moscow and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.