The launch lasted just over a minute before the rocket disintegrated. Following the failed launch, Pyongyang admitted the rocket did not deliver a satellite, but also pressed ahead with grandiose propaganda in praise of the ruling Kim family. The acknowledgment of the rocket's failure was a surprising admission by a government that has kept tight control over information in the past.
The White House and South Korea declared the launch a provocative action and a cover for testing military technology.
North Korea had painted the launch as a scientific achievement and as a gift for its later founder Kim Il Sung, two days before the 100th anniversary of this birth. It pressed ahead with launch plans even as world leaders vowed to take action in the U.N. Security Council against what they called a flagrant violation of international resolutions prohibiting North Korea from developing its nuclear and missile programs.
Pyongyang space officials said the Unha-3, or Galaxy-3, rocket was meant to send a satellite into orbit to study crops and weather patterns. Officials had earlier brought foreign journalists to see the rocket and the Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite Sunday in a bid to show its transparency amid accusations of defiance.
The rocket's destruction shows the country has yet to master the technology needed to build long-range missiles that could threaten the United States. Still, worries remain about North Korea's nuclear program amid reports that it may be planning an atomic test soon.
The launch serves also as a setback for the government under new leader Kim Jong Un, who is solidifying power following the death of his father, longtime leader Kim Jong Il four months ago.
Kim Jong Un has been given several important titles intended to strengthen his rule this week. Hours after the failed launch, state media said he was named first chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission during a meeting of the Supreme People's Assembly.
The Unha-3's launch was monitored by U.S., Japanese and South Korean military assets, which were expected to capture vital data on North Korea's ballistic missile capabilities.
U.S. Navy minesweepers and other ships in the area were expected to begin scouring the sea for debris from the rocket, which can offer evidence of what went wrong and what rocket technology North Korea has.
The missile was expected to pass over South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines and splash down off the coast of Australia.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.