A U.S. official says the rocket broke up into pieces. North Korea had announced it was planning the launch of an observation satellite to celebrate Sunday's centennial of the birth of Kim Il Sung, the country's late founder.
North Korea fired a long-range rocket, which broke into pieces without any threat to land, a U.S. official tells NPR.
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 Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite was fired from the Sohae Satellite Launching Station in Tongchang-ri along the west coast at 7:38 a.m., 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.
The launch of the three-stage rocket mounted with a satellite was part of the centenary celebrations to honor the nation's founder, Kim Il Sung. It defied international warnings against a launch widely seen as a provocation.
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.
This was Pyongyang's third attempt to send a satellite into space since 1998.
"A missile like this could eventually be equipped with a nuclear warhead," NPR's Tom Gjelten reports, "and that, of course, would be a dramatic and very worrisome development because this missile, theoretically ... could reach the United States."
The trajectory for this launch would have sent the missile to the south of the Philippines.
However, there's no evidence North Korea could put a warhead on the missile, and the failure of Friday morning's launch, Gjelten says, "would suggest that North Korea is not near that capability yet."
Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, tells NPR that an action like this shows that North Korea has not become less confrontational, even with its new leader, Kim Jung Un. But, he says, the country has done worse things in the past.
"I do think that this is a provocation that is not horrible in the scheme of things," he says. "It's obviously not good, but therefore maybe our response should be measured as well. And it could be ... somewhat punitive without going too far."
In a statement, the White House called the launch "provocative," and said North Korea was "only further isolating itself." Foreign ministers from the Group of Eight industrialized nations also condemned the launch. The U.N. Security Council plans to discuss the issue Friday.
NPR's Tom Bowman, Tom Gjelten and Louisa Lim contributed to this report, which contains material from The Associated Press