A North Korean missile exploded during launch in a high-profile failure that came as a powerful US aircraft carrier approaches the Korean Peninsula in a show of force. It was not immediately clear what kind of missile was fired from the city of Sinpo on North Korea’s east coast, but the failure will sting in Pyongyang.
It comes the day after one of the biggest North Korean propaganda events of the year- celebrations of the 105th birthday of the country’s late founder Kim Il Sung, the current leader’s grandfather. The North’s test firing can be seen as a message of defiance to Washington, coming as it does on the day US Vice President Mike Pence is set to arrive in Seoul for talks on North Korea.
President Donald Trump was uncharacteristically quiet about the failed launch of the missile.
Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said Mr Trump and his military team “are aware of North Korea’s most recent unsuccessful missile launch. The president has no further comment.”
Mr Trump has been leaning on China to put pressure on North Korea, but has also threatened to take on the country alone if necessary. He tweeted on Thursday: “I have great confidence that China will properly deal with North Korea. If they are unable to do so, the U.S., with its allies, will!. U.S.A.”
Washington and Seoul will try work out what exactly North Korea fired.
While North Korea regularly launches short-range missiles, it is also developing mid-range and long-range missiles meant to target US troops in Asia and, eventually, the US mainland. The ultimate goal is to have a full array of nuclear-tipped missiles in response to what Pyongyang says is hostility by Washington and Seoul meant to topple its government.
North Korea is thought to have a small arsenal of atomic bombs and an impressive array of short- and medium-range missiles. Many outside analysts believe that North Korea has not yet mastered the technology to build warheads small enough to place on long-range missiles. But some civilian experts say North Korea can already build nuclear-tipped shorter range missiles that have South Korea and Japan within its striking range.
The US Pacific Command said that Sunday’s missile exploded on launch. South Korea’s defence ministry said it was analysing exactly how the North Korean test failed. Neither military knew what kind of missile was fired.
In Seoul, South Korea’s presidential office convened a national security council meeting to examine its security policy.
Chronically high animosity has risen on the Korean Peninsula in recent months, as the US and South Korea conduct annual war games that North Korea claims are invasion preparation, and the North prepared for Saturday’s anniversary celebrations.
A US aircraft carrier, the USS Carl Vinson, is heading to waters off Korea in a show of force.
Analysts warn that even failed missile launches provide valuable knowledge into North Korea as it tries to build its weapons programme.
The country launched a long-range rocket and conducted two nuclear tests last year, including its most powerful to date. Aside from improving the technology, North Korean missile and nuclear tests are seen by outside analysts partly as efforts to bolster the domestic image of leader Kim Jong Un and apply political pressure on Seoul and Washington.
Kim Jong Un has overseen three nuclear tests and a string of missile and rocket launches since taking over after the death of his father, dictator Kim Jong Il, in late 2011. Another missile test from Sinpo failed earlier this month, when the rocket spun out of control and plunged into the ocean.
That launch came shortly before Mr Trump’s first meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. China is North Korea’s only major ally. The extended-range Scud missile in that earlier launch suffered an in-flight failure and fell into the sea off North Korea’s east coast, according to US imagery and assessments.
Despite Sunday’s failure, the North’s previous claim to have used “standardised” warheads has led to worries that it was making headway in its push to develop small and sophisticated warheads to be topped on long-range missiles.
Washington sees North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles as a threat to world security and to its Asian allies, Japan and South Korea. The United States, South Korea and other countries have vowed to apply more pressure on the North, but so far nothing has worked to stop Pyongyang’s nuclear programme.
Six-nation negotiations on dismantling North Korea’s nuclear programme in exchange for aid fell apart in early 2009.