SEOUL – North Korea on Tuesday appeared to have tried and failed with a fresh ballistic missile launch in violation of existing U.N. resolutions, South Korea’s Defense Ministry said.
The U.N. measures ban North Korea from any use of ballistic missile technology, although it regularly fires short-range missiles into the sea off its east coast.
Tensions have been running high on the divided Korean Peninsula since the North’s fourth nuclear test in January, followed by a long-range rocket launch the following month.
The Defense Ministry in Seoul said the missile test took place at around 5:20 a.m. near the eastern port city of Wonsan.
“The attempted missile launch … is believed to have failed,” a ministry spokesman said.
“We are analyzing and closely monitoring the situation and maintaining a watertight defense posture,” he added.
The ministry declined to speculate on the type of missile, but the South’s Yonhap news agency quoted military sources saying it was understood to be a medium-range Musudan.
In April, the North failed three times to test-fire a Musudan, which has an estimated range of anywhere between 2,500 and 4,000 kilometers (1,550 to 2,500 miles).
The lower range covers the whole of South Korea and Japan, while the upper range would include U.S. military bases on Guam.
In Tokyo, NHK reported that the Japanese government had put its military on pre-emptive alert Monday with orders to intercept any North Korean missile that threatened Japanese territory.
Under the order, the Self-Defense Forces deployed Aegis destroyers equipped with missile interceptors offshore and PAC-3 surface-to-air anti-ballistic missiles, the public broadcaster said.
“We have no reports of any damage in Japan. We are gathering and analyzing data. The Defense Ministry is prepared to respond to any situation,” Defense Minister Gen Nakatani told a media briefing.
“North Korea shows no sign of abandoning the development of nuclear missiles and so we will continue to work closely with the U.S. and South Korea in response and maintain a close watch on North Korea,” Nakatani said.
First unveiled as an indigenous missile at a military parade in Pyongyang in October 2010, the Musudan has never been successfully flight-tested.
Three earlier failures in April were seen as an embarrassment for the Pyongyang leadership, coming ahead of a party congress in May that was meant to celebrate the country’s achievements.
Tuesday’s attempted launch appears to have been its first missile test since then, and experts have said it was unusual to test-fire a missile so soon after a previous failure.
The South Korean military said Pyongyang’s continuous missile launches could stem from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s order in March for further tests of nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles.
“They must’ve been in a rush. Maybe Kim Jong Un was very upset about the failures,” said Lee Choon-geun, senior research fellow at South Korea’s state-run Science and Technology Policy Institute.
North Korea has never had a successful launch of the Musudan missile, which theoretically has the range to reach any part of Japan and the U.S. territory of Guam.
North Korea is believed to have roughly 20 to 30 Musudan missiles, according to South Korean media, which officials said were first deployed in around 2007.
“It could have cracks and something wrong with the welding,” Lee said of possible causes for the latest failure. “But deployment before test-firing these to complete development seems unusual.”
During the congress, Kim personally extended an offer of military dialogue with the South aimed at easing tensions.
The proposal was repeated several times by the North’s military, but Seoul dismissed all the overtures as insincere “posturing” given Kim’s vow at the same congress to push ahead with the country’s nuclear weapons program.
Pyongyang had hailed a series of technical military breakthroughs in the months leading up to the May party congress.
They included miniaturizing a nuclear warhead to fit on a missile, developing a warhead that can withstand atmospheric re-entry, and building a solid-fuel missile engine.
It also said had successfully tested an engine designed for an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) that would “guarantee” an eventual nuclear strike on the U.S. mainland.
Outside experts have treated a number of the claims with skepticism, while acknowledging that the North’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs have both made significant strides.