North Korea tested as many as six missiles [update: ROK saying as many as 10], including possibly a Nodong missiles and a Taepodong-2, early July 5 local time (the first missile, not coincidentally, launched at the same time as the U.S. Space Shuttle Discovery in Florida). After weeks of speculation, Pyongyang gave the United States an Independence Day display unlikely to be forgotten for some time. Of course, that is largely because Pyongyang failed in the Taepodong-2 launch.
While North Korea's 1998 Taepodong-1 launch didn't manage to place its satellite in orbit, it did demonstrate effective staging technology. This time, it appears the Taepodong-2 either had catastrophic failure or was aborted between 35 and 40 seconds into the launch. For North Korea, there will be no claims of the melodious strains of the Song of General Kim Jong Il broadcast over the ethos from the Kwangmyongsong-2.
It was a risky move for North Korea to launch in the first place. Pyongyang rarely tests its ballistic missiles. Prior to this event, the Nodong was only ever tested from North Korea once, on May 29, 1993 (although there are conflicting reports of two other tests, one in May of 1990 and another failed test in June of 1992). Pyongyang's only Taepodong test was in 1998 (the failed Taepodong-1 satellite launch). By refraining from testing at home (Pyongyang takes part in tests of related systems in Pakistan, Iran and elsewhere), North Korea can leave the exact level of development a mystery. And foreign intelligence services always err on the side of caution, overestimating the range, capacity and accuracy of North Korea's missiles.
A catastrophic failure of the Taepodong-2 weakens this sense of uncertainty. Sure, Pyongyang may do better next time, but it has shown that this version was not ready to get off the ground (there were reports a while back of a failed ground test of the engine as well, so apparently they were aware of the potential risks). At least in the near term, Pyongyang has played its hand and lost. Now, the ability to carry out multiple launches of various types of missiles (Hwasongs, Nodongs, and Taepodongs) does demonstrate a level of command and control over multiple launch sites and various types of missile forces.
In a way, this was a command and control exercise, one that demonstrated the ability to coordinate various missile units. Pyongyang has repeatedly said it is ready to launch a counterstrike against the US and its allies, and its tests July 5 showed the North Korean arsenal of short, medium and long range missiles - perfect for striking South Korea, Japan and, theoretically, the United States.
But the failure of the Taepodong-2 is what will stand out. North Korea has been reticent to actually test the Taepodong-2, for fear that it would fail. Now, most major space programs (the United States, the Soviet Union) had plenty of failures before achieving fairly positive success rates. Latecomer Japan has had abysmal luck with the H2. China doesn't have a perfect track record. In fact, one must remember that this is precisely rocket science, and therefore isn't the simplest thing to do right all the time.
But North Korea took the risk, and launched on America's Independence Day (perhaps hoping to catch the U.S. off guard like the Japanese did on a December Sunday in 1941, or seeking additional attention coinciding with the Space Shuttle launch). The North's leadership obviously expected a strong reaction from the United States and Japan, and even went against the public statements of erstwhile allies China and Russia in carrying out the test. This suggests either the North Korean regime is off its collective rocker (not likely, or else they wouldn't have lasted this long), expects to gain some new sort of leverage from the multiple tests or sees an imminent threat from the United States or its regional allies and is demonstrating how painful such a move would be.
There must have been an internal regime consensus for a launch, given the number of tests carried out. What their next steps is will be a bit of a mystery, but some major shift in Korean relations with the world will likely emerge in the next three to six months. This is their game. It is how they play it. The failed launch today was a slight hiccup, but not chronic indigestion. But North Korea's display of force was tarnished, and at minimum it will take a few days to get everyone (diplomats, military, SPA) back on the same page after the secrecy leading up to the launch timing and the damage control from the failed test.