(Bloomberg) -- A North Korean rocket carrying a spy satellite blew up shortly after liftoff in a setback for leader Kim Jong Un, who went to Russia last year seeking help to place an array of reconnaissance probes into orbit.

Video footage provided by South Korea’s military and Japanese public broadcaster NHK purportedly showed the rocket breaking up in a fireball after its launch on Monday night. Debris from the rocket landed in waters off North Korea’s west coast, according to South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.

North Korea’s official media said, “the launch failed due to the air blast of the new-type satellite carrier rocket during the first-stage flight.” The rocket was carrying a military reconnaissance satellite and the trouble was caused by problems with a newly developed engine that used liquid oxygen and petroleum, the official Korean Central News Agency reported.


Weapons expert Jeffrey Lewis wrote in a post on the X social media platform that the failure attributed to an air blast “probably means aerodynamic pressure.” He added, “the rocket structure experiences a lot of stress as it pushes through the atmosphere.”

This was North Korea’s fourth attempt to launch a spy satellite since last year, with three ending in failure soon after lift-off and a launch in November successfully placing a probe into orbit. It remains to be seen if there was any influence from Russia on the design of the new engine, which was rolled out for use after President Vladimir Putin pledged at a summit with Kim in September to help him with his space program.

Kim intends to launch three spy satellites in 2024, KCNA reported after a policy-setting meeting of top officials in the last days of December. The satellites can help him keep eyes on US troops in the region and improve his ability to strike targets as he upgrades his nuclear weapons arsenal. 

North Korea gave notice of the launch early Monday, prompting the US, South Korea and Japan to call on Kim to halt his plans. The three have said the technology used for rockets helps Pyongyang’s ballistic missile program and is a violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions.

The launch also came hours after China, Japan and South Korea held their first summit since 2019. Tokyo and Seoul called on Beijing, which has been Pyongyang’s main benefactor for years, to use its influence to rein in Kim’s atomic ambitions.

Read More: China Discusses Supply Chains With US Allies Japan, South Korea

The US and its partners have also accused Kim of sending massive amounts of munitions to Putin to help in his war on Ukraine in return for aid that is advancing North Korea’s military and economy. Moscow and Pyongyang have denied the claims.

(Updates and writes through. An earlier version was corrected to amend the name of North Korea’s news agency)

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.