North Korea fired a suspected ballistic missile that exploded in the air shortly after the launch, Seoul said on Wednesday, with analysts warning that it was likely a failed test of Pyongyang’s so-called “monster missile”.
The launch – North Korea’s tenth presumed weapons test this year – comes after the United States said the nuclear-armed country was preparing to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) “at full range” for the first time since 2017.
Despite biting international sanctions over its weapons programs, Pyongyang conducted seven missile tests in January and twice launched components of what it claimed was a “reconnaissance satellite.”
South Korea and the United States said last week that these tests were in fact of a new ICBM system that had never been launched before – probably Hwasong-17, called a “monster missile” by analysts after it was first unveiled at a parade in October 2020.
The suspected ballistic missile “appears to have exploded in the air shortly after launch,” Seoul’s joint chief of staff told AFP.
The launch was from the Sunan area of Pyongyang around noon. 09:30 (1230 GMT), they said – the same place as the “satellite” tests on 27 February and 5 March.
Nuclear-armed North Korea has long coveted an ICBM capable of carrying more warheads, and the United States said last week that recent tests marked a “serious escalation” of the country’s weapons programs.
But the specialist NK News website reported that the launch on Wednesday ended in “catastrophic failure” with a red-colored ball of smoke zigzagging across the sky as rubbish fell near the capital.
The U.S. military said this week it had “improved” missile defense systems in South Korea.
– Monster missile? –
North Korea has conducted three ICBM tests – the last in November 2017 of a Hwasong-15 – that are considered strong enough to reach Washington and the rest of the continental United States.
But the country has observed a self-imposed moratorium on the testing of long-range and nuclear weapons since leader Kim Jong Un launched a spate of high-level diplomacy in 2018.
Negotiations with Donald Trump, the US president at the time, collapsed a year later, and since then Kim has doubled his plans to modernize his military while ignoring US offers of negotiations.
“The signs indicate that the northern test-fired Hwasong-17 today,” Cheong Seong-chang, a senior researcher at the private Sejong Institute, told AFP.
“As Russia is now highly unlikely to agree to further sanctions in the north in the event of such a test launch in the midst of the country’s invasion of Ukraine, Pyongyang appears to have considered it the optimal time to proceed,” Cheong said.
The bug in Wednesday’s launch will be carefully investigated by Pyongyang, and it could take about three tests to make sure the missile works, he added.
“I expect the Nordics to complete one or two more test launches by April 15,” he said.
North Korea will mark the 110th anniversary of the birth of the founding leader and Kim’s grandfather Kim Il Sung in April and would like to mark key domestic anniversaries with military parades or launches.
“The Kim regime wants to demonstrate new technical achievements around the 110th birthday of its founder, Kim Il-sung,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
“If the latest missile launch was really a failure, North Korea will almost certainly continue to test,” he added.
Satellite images indicate that North Korea is preparing for a military parade for the April anniversary.
The fact that the launch on Wednesday failed indicates that it was not just “an ordinary missile”, North Korean research researcher Ahn Chan-il told AFP.
The timing, during a South Korean presidential transition, and while the world is focused on Ukraine, also indicates that Pyongyang is seeking maximum leverage, he added.
A fresh ICBM launch would be an early challenge for South Korea’s newly elected president, Yoon Suk-yeol, who has promised to take a tougher line against the Nordic provocations.
Yoon has not ruled out the possibility of dialogue with Pyongyang, but analysts say his hawkish position puts him on a completely different footing than his liberal predecessor and significantly reduces the prospect of significant engagement.
cdl-kjk / ceb / dva