SEOUL, South Korea — A technical glitch forced South Korea to abort liftoff of its first rocket into space Wednesday, delaying a launch that threatened to stoke tensions with North Korea even as Pyongyang joined in mourning a leader who pushed tirelessly for reconciliation.
The rival Koreas are eager to develop space programs, and had aimed to send satellites into space this year. In April, the North launched a three-stage rocket it claimed sent a communications satellite into orbit; some experts doubt the mission succeeded.
Washington, Tokyo and others called that launch a disguised test of long-range missile technology. The U.N. Security Council condemned the launch, saying it was a violation of resolutions banning North Korea from ballistic missile-related activity.
However, there have been recent signs of easing tensions – the North freed two imprisoned American journalists when former President Bill Clinton came to Pyongyang and met with leader Kim Jong Il. Later, the North freed a South Korean technician and agreed to resume some joint tourism and industry projects with Seoul.
And on Wednesday, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson met with two North Korean diplomats. Richardson called the meeting a "hopeful sign" of improving relations.
Yet as South Korea geared up for its rocket launch, North Korea warned it would be "watching closely" for the international response to Seoul's launch.
"Their reaction and attitude toward South Korea's satellite launch will once again clearly prove whether the principle of equality exists or has collapsed," a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry told North Korea's official news agency.
South Korea's launch was called off less than eight minutes before the scheduled liftoff, senior Science Ministry official Lee Sang-mok said. The two-stage rocket, built with Russian help, would have been South Korea's first satellite launch from its own territory.
South Korean and Russian scientists were investigating the malfunction that halted the launch, and Russian scientists believed another attempt could occur within days, Lee said. He said a high-pressure tank that helps operate valves in the launch vehicle may have been the problem.
Despite the North's objections, U.S. and South Korean officials say the rocket launches cannot be compared, maintaining that South Korea has carried out the process transparently, and for peaceful purposes, while the North has not abided by its international commitments.
The Koreas remain in a state of war since their conflict ended in a truce in 1953. Relations have been tense since President Lee Myung-bak took office in Seoul in 2008, abandoning ex-President Kim Dae-jung's policy of encouraging reconciliation with aid.
North Korea put its army on alert this week as the U.S. and South Korea held military exercises in the South. Washington and Seoul say the computer-simulated war games are purely defensive. But North Korea's Foreign Ministry warned they were "aggravating" tensions on the Korean peninsula.
In the latest sign of a thaw, two diplomats from North Korea's U.N. mission met with Richardson, who twice went to North Korea in the 1990s to secure the release of Americans. Richardson declined to comment on the substance of the talks or say why North Korea requested the meeting.
Also this week, Kim Jong Il sent condolences to the family former President Kim Dae-jung, who died Tuesday at age 85 after a lifetime of fighting for democracy and reconciliation on the Korean peninsula. The two leaders met in a historic summit in 2000 – the first between the Koreas.
"The feats he performed to achieve national reconciliation and realize the desire for reunification will remain long with the nation," North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency quoted Kim Jong Il as saying.
North Korean officials have conveyed their wish to send a delegation to the funeral Sunday. It would be led by Workers' Party official Kim Ki-nam, KCNA said Thursday.
Pyongyang dispatched a condolence delegation only once before for a South Korean: the industrialist Chung Ju-yung, founder of the Hyundai Group, which funded the first inter-Korean joint projects.
The South Korean government was discussing whether to allow the North's delegation to visit, Unification Ministry spokeswoman Lee Jong-joo said.
Thousands lined up in Seoul to lay white chrysanthemums before a portrait of the dissident-turned-president, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his reconciliation efforts.
"It feels as if my heart is being torn," Yang Young-sim, a 58-year-old housewife, said between sobs. "He is a man who has devoted his entire life to Korea's democracy."
North Koreans in Pyongyang also were mourning Kim, according to the Choson Sinbo, a Tokyo-based newspaper viewed as a mouthpiece for the North Korean government.
Associated Press writers Wanjin Park in Seoul, Foster Klug in Washington, Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Barry Massey in Santa Fe, New Mexico, contributed to this report.