Big question: What will N. Korea do next?

North Korea's Unha-3 rocket stands at Sohae Satellite Station in Tongchang-ri, North Korea. North Korea fired the long-range rocket early Friday South Korean and U.S. officials said, defying international warnings against moving forward with a launch widely seen as a provocation.(File/AP)

BEIJING — After the embarrassment of a much-publicized rocket launch ending in explosion, North Korea offered a new puzzle Friday for international observers: What will the isolated country do next?

The Unha-3 rocket and the satellite it carried were meant to be a grand reminder of the 100th anniversary of the April 15 birth of Kim Il Sung, the nation’s founder.

It was also a public assertion of the standing of his grandson and North Korea’s current ruler, Kim Jong Un.

That the launch ended so disastrously — the rocket burst into pieces two minutes or less after takeoff Friday morning, according to the South Korean Defense Ministry — raises the question of whether North Korea will now up the stakes.

Beyond the usual erratic behavior and secrecy of the North, there are concerns about the stability of a regime led by Kim Jong Un, thought to be in his late 20s, who was thrust into the position after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in December.

The government had invited a contingent of Western TV and wire service journalists to report the achievement, making it that much more of a humiliation to have to acknowledge, via an official news service, that “the earth observation satellite failed to enter its preset orbit.”

Pentagon spokesman George Little said U.S. analysts believe the rocket failed after its second stage ignited. He said the U.S. played no role in the explosion, noting that previous North Korean missile launches also had fallen short of their announced goals.

North Korea claimed the rocket was a peaceful endeavor meant only to launch a satellite. But it was widely seen as a test of intercontinental ballistic missile development, which would violate a U.N. ban on the North’s use of such technology.

U.S. officials had warned against the launch, and Little said the explosion didn’t change that view. “Even though it failed, (the launch) was a violation of international law,” he said.

Little urged North Korea not to follow up with another “highly provocative act.”

That suggested worry about North Korea’s other contentious program, nuclear weapons.

A South Korean intelligence report widely quoted this week said that the North appeared to be readying for its third nuclear test. Satellite images of an area where tests were conducted in 2006 and 2009 showed a new tunnel being dug, according to The Associated Press.

Such actions would not be well received in South Korea, where tensions skyrocketed in 2010 after the North was accused of torpedoing a South Korean naval ship that March, killing 46 sailors. When the North shelled a South Korean island eight months later, killing four people, hardliners in Seoul called for retaliation.

Not everyone is convinced, though, that Pyongyang will push ahead anytime soon with a nuclear test or further provocations.

While there is sure to be frustration about the rocket’s failure, the act of the launch itself might have been sufficient to demonstrate the “strong willingness” of Kim Jong Un, said Su Hao, a scholar at the China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing, which is affiliated with China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry.