The launch – North Korea’s tenth suspected weapons test this year – comes after the US said the nuclear-armed country was preparing to fire an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) “at full range” for the first time since 2017.
Despite cutting international sanctions on its weapons programs, Pyongyang conducted seven missile tests in January and twice launched components claimed to be “reconnaissance satellites”.
South Korea and the US said last week that those tests were in fact of a new ICBM system that had never been launched before – possibly Hwaseong-17, which was first unveiled at a parade in October 2020 by analysts Monster Missile”.
“North Korea fired an unidentified projectile from the Sunan area at around 9:30 p.m. today, but it is believed to have failed shortly after the launch,” Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement.
According to the South Korean military, “satellite” tests on February 27 and March 5 were also conducted from Pyongyang’s Sunan area.
Japanese media reported on Wednesday, citing an unnamed Defense Ministry official, that it was a “probable ballistic missile” test.
National broadcaster NHK reported senior government officials are meeting at the prime minister’s office to discuss the situation.
The nuclear-armed North has long longed for an ICBM that can carry multiple warheads, and the US said recent tests last week marked a “serious escalation” of the country’s weapons programs.
The US military said this week that it had “enhanced” missile defense systems in South Korea.
It has increased the “intensity” of air defense exercises, as well as conducted a carrier-based aerial demonstration in the Yellow Sea following recent North Korean launches.
– Monster missile? – North has conducted three ICBM tests – the last in November 2017 of Hwaseong-15 – believed to be powerful enough to reach Washington and the rest of the continental United States.
But the country has been adhering to a self-imposed moratorium on long-range and nuclear weapons testing since 2017, when leader Kim Jong Un unleashed a flurry of high-level diplomacy.
Talks with then US President Donald Trump failed in 2019 and since then Kim has doubled down on his plans to modernize his military, ignoring US offers for talks.
“Signs indicate Hwaseong-17 tested in the north today,” Cheong Seong-chang, a senior researcher at the private Sejong Institute, told AFP.
“With Russia now unlikely to agree to additional sanctions on the North in such a test-launch case amid the invasion of Ukraine, Pyongyang has decided it was the best time to proceed,” Cheong said.
He said the failure of Wednesday’s launch will be closely studied by Pyongyang, and it may take about three tests to make sure the missile is working.
“I expect North to do one or two more test-launches before April 15,” he said.
North Korea will mark the 110th anniversary of the birth of founding leader and Kim’s grandfather Kim Il Sung in April and prefers to mark major domestic anniversaries with military parades or launches.
“The Kim regime seeks to showcase new technological achievements around the 110th birth anniversary of its founder, Kim Il-sung,” said Professor Leif-Erik Easley of Iwa University in Seoul.
“If the recent missile launch is indeed a failure, North Korea will certainly continue to conduct tests,” he said.
Satellite images indicate North Korea is preparing for a military parade for its April anniversary.
The fact that Wednesday’s launch failed shows it was not just “an ordinary missile”, North Korean studies scholar Ahn Chan-il told AFP.
He said that during the transition of the South Korean president and when the world is focused on Ukraine, it also indicates that Pyongyang is seeking to make the most of it.
A new ICBM launch will be an initial challenge for South Korea’s newly-elected President Yoon Suk-yol, who has vowed to take tough action against the North’s provocation.
Yun has not ruled out talks with Pyongyang, but analysts say his stern position completely alienates him from his liberal predecessor and significantly reduces the chances of a significant engagement.