Analysts say North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has been banking on a successful launch to rally public support despite hardships in the isolated society, including poverty and widespread food shortages. They say a successful launch would be a global advertisement for its arms sales to Third World countries.
In Seoul on Saturday, more than 100 anti-North Korea activists had burned a miniature model of a Taepodong 2 missile and clashed with police, according to South Korean news reports.
The rocket launch was intended to precede a gathering Thursday of North Korea's Supreme People's Assembly, in which the legislative body would rubber-stamp leader Kim's hold on power in the wake of elections last month.
In 1998, North Korea used what officials claimed was a satellite launch to herald Kim's ascension to power. The satellite was intended to transmit back to Earth the "Song of General Kim Jong Il" and Morse code signals for juche, the regime's political ideology.
But analysts never detected a satellite and believe that rocket's last stage failed.
"That satellite launch was the prelude to Kim's coming-out party, when he took the reins as the North Korean leader," said Scott Snyder, a North Korea expert with the Asia Foundation.
Times staff writers Julian E. Barnes and Robert Ourlian in Washington, special correspondent Yuriko Nagano in Tokyo and Ju-min Park of the Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.