South Korean Intelligence Confirms North Korean Missile Exploded in Failed Launch

South Korea’s military said on Wednesday that a North Korean missile fired from its capital area burst shortly after liftoff in an apparent failed weapons launch, amid concerns that the North is poised to launch its longest-range missile in its most serious provocation in years.

The cause of the missile explosion was unknown at the time. However, the launch, the tenth of its sort this year, demonstrates North Korea’s determination to move ahead with its efforts to upgrade its weapons arsenal and compel its adversaries into making concessions despite the stagnation of disarmament negotiations.

According to a South Korean military officer who requested anonymity because he wasn’t officially allowed to speak to the media about the incident, the North Korean missile exploded while flying at an altitude of less than 20 kilometers (12.4 miles). The reason of the explosion, he claimed, remained unknown.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff of South Korea previously stated that the launch took place about 9:30 a.m. (0030 GMT) from the Pyongyang area, but provided no other specifics.

The missile most likely detonated less than a minute after launch, according to Lee Choon Geun, an honorary research fellow at South Korea’s Science and Technology Policy Institute. He predicted that if the missile’s hazardous fuels dropped on North Korean civilian residential areas, they would have a significant health impact. There were no early reports of such devastation in North Korea from the outside world.

North Korea fired a ballistic missile, but the US Indo-Pacific Command did not clarify whether it was a successful launch. The launch did not represent an imminent danger to US territory or allies, according to a command statement, but North Korea was urged to avoid from additional destabilizing actions.

Hirokazu Matsuno, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary, told reporters that a ballistic missile flight had not been confirmed and that Tokyo was cooperating with Washington and Seoul to investigate further.

Experts believe that prior failures have pushed North Korea closer to its goal of developing a realistic nuclear arsenal capable of posing a threat to the United States. Only one of eight “Musudan” intermediate-range missile tests in 2016 was deemed successful by outside observers, leading to speculation that North Korea’s road to ICBMs had been cut off.

In 2017, the North, on the other hand, launched more powerful intermediate-range missiles over Japan and successfully tested three ICBMs, demonstrating a potential range to hit deep into the United States mainland.

North Korea’s successful satellite launches in 2012 and 2016 — which the UN saw as covert testing of its long-range missile technology — came after a string of failures.

North Korea tested an ICBM system in two recent launches, according to the US and South Korean forces, alluding to the developing Hwasong-17 missile, the North’s most powerful weapon, which it showcased during a military parade in October 2020.

North Korean missiles flew medium-range distances in two recent launches on February 27 and March 5, and analysts believe the country might eventually conduct a full-range ICBM test.

It was unclear whether the launch on Wednesday included a Hwasong-17 system. If it was a full-range Hwasong-17 launch, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un would very certainly have been present to see it.

North Korea’s main news agency earlier Wednesday revealed photographs of a smiling Kim, dressed in a long black leather coat, touring a massive residential complex under construction on the outskirts of Pyongyang. The news agency didn’t disclose when Kim was there, but his public appearances are usually reported one or two days after they happen.

North Korea said it had tested cameras and other equipment for a spy satellite after its two previous launches, and it posted what it said were photographs obtained from space during one of the two tests, but it didn’t say what rocket or missile it fired.

According to observers, North Korea is working to improve its ICBM capabilities while also attempting to launch its first operational spy satellite into space. Kim has promised to buy an enhanced ICBM and a spy satellite, among other advanced military systems, to deal with what he deems American aggression.

The Hwasong-17 has a range of 15,000 kilometers (9,320 miles), allowing it to attack anyplace in the United States and beyond. The 25-meter (82-foot) missile has yet to be tested after being displayed during a defense demonstration in Pyongyang last year.

The Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15 were the three ICBMs that North Korea tested in 2017. According to some observers, the country’s development of a bigger missile might indicate that it is attempting to outfit its long-range weapons with multiple warheads in order to defeat missile defense systems.

If North Korea launches another ICBM, it will be the country’s most visible nuclear test since its third and last ICBM launch in November 2017.

North Korea may refer to its upcoming ICBM test as a rocket launch to put a reconnaissance satellite into orbit, rather than a weapons test. Some observers believe this would elicit censure but not new U.N. sanctions since Russia and China have vetoes on the Security Council and would reject it.

Other missiles fired by North Korea this year were primarily shorter-range, nuclear-capable weapons that put South Korea and Japan, both important US allies, within striking reach. North Korea conducted seven missile launches in January alone, setting a new monthly record since Kim seized control in late 2011.

Due to disputes over US-led sanctions on North Korea, US-led diplomacy aimed at convincing the North to halt its nuclear program faltered in 2019. North Korea has been pushed by Washington to return to discussions without preconditions, but Pyongyang has refused such offers, claiming that the US must first end its hostile policies.

North Korea warned in January that it would remove its four-year ban on ICBM and nuclear testing. South Korea’s Defense Ministry said Friday that it has discovered signals that North Korea is reopening parts of the tunnels blasted ahead of the now-defunct nuclear talks.

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