North Korea tested an apparent medium-range missile early Sunday that “blew up almost immediately,” the U.S. military and government officials said — the latest act of defiance in the face of calls by Washington to rein in its nuclear and missile programs.
The failed launch, which was detected from a site near a North Korean submarine base in the city of Sinpo, came just a day after Pyongyang showcased its military might in a parade marking the birth of the country’s founder, where it displayed a variety of old and new weaponry, including technology that pointed to possible plans for new long-range missiles.
Sunday’s failure also occurred hours before U.S. Vice President Mike Pence landed in Seoul for the first leg of an Asia trip, including a stop in Japan from Tuesday to Thursday.
U.S. President Donald Trump was uncharacteristically silent on the test. In a statement, Defense Secretary James Mattis said the president and his military team “are aware of North Korea’s most recent unsuccessful missile launch. The president has no further comment.”
Media reports quoted a U.S. foreign policy adviser who had traveled with Pence on Air Force Two as saying that the test of a medium-range missile had come as no surprise to Washington.
“We had good intelligence before the launch and good intelligence after the launch,” the adviser told reporters on condition of anonymity.
The Associated Press quoted the same official as saying that had it been a nuclear test, “other actions would have been taken by the U.S.”
Amid surging tensions in the region, Trump earlier this month rerouted what he referred to as an “armada” led by a U.S. aircraft carrier from a planned visit to Australia to waters off the Korean Peninsula. The carrier strike group was expected to arrive in the area soon.
The show of force by Trump — who has said the option for military strikes against the North remains on the table — is intended to deter Pyongyang from conducting more nuclear or missile tests.
However, the U.S. leader’s hard-line stance has done little to dissuade the isolated country from maintaining its frenetic pace of missile tests, including at least seven known launches this year.
At least two of the launches have ended in failure, including Sunday’s, which the U.S. Pacific Command said “blew up almost immediately.”
In Seoul, South Korea’s military also confirmed Sunday’s test, the Yonhap news agency reported. It said military officials believed the projectile could be a KN-15 medium-range missile, which is also known as the Pukguksong-2.
The same missile was also thought to have been fired from the Sinpo area on April 5 in the earlier failed test.
There was a high degree of confidence that it was not an intercontinental ballistic missile, Reuters quoted an unnamed U.S. official as saying. It said a second U.S. official told the news agency the launch was land-based.
The Japanese government lodged a protest with the North through a diplomatic channel in Beijing over the test-firing, calling it a clear violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions, Kyodo News reported, quoting a Foreign Ministry official as saying that the tense situation “will continue for some time.”
South Korea’s Foreign Ministry strongly condemned the launch, warning that the North would face “serious punitive measures” should it conduct a nuclear or long-range missile test. South Korea, which hosts 28,500 U.S. troops, is still technically at war with the North because their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.
“North Korea showing a variety of offensive missiles at yesterday’s military parade and daring to fire a ballistic missile today is a show of force that threatens the whole world,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement Sunday.
China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also exchanged views Sunday in a phone call to discuss the “situation on the Korean Peninsula,” the official Xinhua News Agency said, without elaborating.
On Friday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned that conflict could break out “at any moment.”
Trump has threatened to act unilaterally if China — North Korea’s sole major ally — fails to do more to curb its neighbor’s activities.
Daniel Pinkston, an East Asia security expert at Troy University in Seoul, said the timing of Sunday’s test, which came amid the North’s most important holiday, was not an accident.
“To test right in the middle of their big three-day national holiday, their biggest holiday, places extraordinary emphasis on their signaling of defiance,” Pinkston said, noting that Pyongyang had also timed weapons tests or other provocations in the past to coincide with visits or meetings by top officials.
Sunday’s failed launch came just a day after the North displayed what appeared to be new long-range missiles as part of a massive military parade in Pyongyang to mark the 105th anniversary of the birth of the nuclear-armed country’s late founder, Kim Il Sung, who is also the current leader’s grandfather, Kim Jong Un.
Those festivities were widely seen as a chance for the reclusive nation to showcase its growing missile arsenal and improving capabilities.
There has been mounting speculation that Pyongyang will conduct an intercontinental ballistic missile test after Kim used a New Year’s Day address to claim that the North was in the “final stages” of developing such a weapon.
Saturday’s festivities also featured the North’s submarine-launched ballistic missiles, which have an estimated range of 1,000 km (600 miles) and were shown off for the first time in a parade.
The Pukguksong-1 SLBM, which the U.S. calls the KN-11, was first displayed and tested in April 2016, is believed to be powered by a solid-fuel engine, as is its land-based variant, the Pukguksong-2, or KN-15, which was thought to have been tested Sunday. The first test of the land-based version in February was timed to coincide with Trump’s meeting in Florida with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Solid-fuel missiles involve a much smaller fleet of support vehicles than liquid-fuel missiles and can be prepared for launch much more quickly. They are also mobile, allowing the North to hide them in its extensive system of tunnels, making them far more difficult to hunt down.
Any deployment of an SLBM would also complicate the ability of the U.S., South Korea and Japan to pre-emptively destroy North Korea’s nuclear capabilities by threatening a second strike. Land-based nuclear sites are easier to take out than ballistic missile submarines, which help ensure that a retaliatory strike can be launched before they can be found and destroyed.
Pyongyang has conducted a spate of missile launches and two nuclear tests over the past year in violation of United Nations resolutions as it seeks to master the technology needed to mount a warhead on a long-range ballistic missile capable of striking the continental United States.
These tests included the near-simultaneous firing of four ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan last month — a move the North said was a rehearsal for attacking U.S. bases in Japan. Those missiles, three of which fell into Japan’s exclusive economic zone, flew about 1,000 km and were characterized by Abe as “a new level of threat.”
Missile experts said the hypothetical target of that drill appeared to be U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Yamaguchi Prefecture. Observers said the undisguised threat to U.S. bases in Japan was rare, even for Pyongyang, which routinely serves up colorful invectives.
Pinkston said that the rationale behind the ramped-up pace of missile tests was simple: “When you develop new missile tech and systems, you have to test.”
“The North Koreans learn something every time they test,” he added. “With failures, they can review the data and try to fix the problems. And each test is part of a military exercise to train personnel, and to train command-and-control personnel and systems.”
The North has also been making apparent preparations for its sixth atomic test, according to analyses of recent commercial satellite imagery.
Any nuclear or test of an ICBM would pose a fresh challenge to Trump, who has vowed that Pyongyang’s goal of possessing a nuclear-tipped long-range missile “won’t happen.”
The influential 38 North website run by the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University reported last week that the North’s nuclear test site appears “primed and ready” for a fresh atomic test.
But while much of the focus has been on when the North will conduct its next nuclear test, some analysts have said the missile launches — even the failures — should be of at least equal concern.
“I’m not sure why failed missile tests, which are still banned by the U.N. Security Council, are seen as less provocative,” said Kent Boydston, an analyst focusing on the Korean Peninsula at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. “North Koreans know they may fail but they improve their capabilities each time.”