North Korea launched a ballistic missile early on Sunday, but the rocket exploded almost immediately, in an embarrassing failure that came one day after the regime in Pyongyang displayed several new missiles for the first time in a military parade.
According to the Pentagon, North Korea launched the missile at 6.21am local time. The failure came as Kim Jong Un, the North Korean dictator, was celebrating the 105th anniversary of his grandfather, the late Kim Il Sung who founded the nation.
On Saturday, North Korea held a military parade in Pyongyang where it revealed, what appeared to be, new intercontinental ballistic missiles. The missile launch came two days after China warned that a “storm is about to break” on the Korean peninsula because of rising tensions with Washington over North Korea’s nuclear programme.
President Donald Trump last week urged Chinese President Xi Jinping to put more pressure on Pyongyang to abandon its atomic programme, amid mounting concerns that North Korea is close to being able to hit America with a nuclear-armed missile.
“The president and his military team are aware of North Korea’s most recent unsuccessful missile launch,” said James Mattis, the US defence secretary. “The president has no further comment.”
The failed launch came as US vice-president Mike Pence was flying to Seoul for the first leg of a 10-day Asia tour that will also take him to Japan, Indonesia and Australia. Michael Anton, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, said Mr Pence was not cancelling his South Korea stop because of the launch.
The Pentagon said it was trying to determine what kind of ballistic missile was fired on Sunday. The US military and intelligence agencies have also been watching closely to see whether North Korea tries to conduct what would be a sixth nuclear test.
Ahead of the anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birthday, the Pentagon ordered the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier and its accompanying warships to steam towards the Korean peninsula, while North Korea warned that it would use its nuclear deterrent to respond to any US aggression.
Paul Haenle, director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center in Beijing, said the fact that the missile had failed should not lead people to downplay the latest North Korean test.
“It is still a step toward operational capability and a reminder that North Korea is determined to push ahead with its weapons program, despite Trump’s threats and muscle flexing,” said Mr Haenle. “The [missile] was fired in the direction of the USS Carl Vinson. Kim Jong-un was sending a defiant message that he will not be deterred by President Trump’s tweets or US aircraft carriers.”
The North Korean missile test also came nine days after Mr Trump launched 59 cruise missiles at Syria. Mr Haenle said the decision to hit Syria might have rattled the Kim regime and that “a degree of unpredictability can be helpful in inciting fear in Pyongyang”. But he stressed that in order for unpredictability to work, it had to be coupled with predictability for America’s allies in the region. “If we want to deter bad behaviour, we also need to be clear about what kinds of behaviour we’re going to respond to,” said Mr Haenle. “That will require formulating a clear and coherent policy.”
In the Saturday parade, which was attended by Mr Kim, Pyongyang displayed new long-range and submarine-based missiles, in what military analysts said was a demonstration of the North Korean leader’s commitment to missile development.
North Korean television showed what appeared to be KN-08 and KN-14 missiles — which have not been tested, but which experts said could have the potential to hit the US mainland.
The regime also unveiled Pukkuksong submarine-launched ballistic missiles, which have a range of more than 1,000km, along with the Musudan, a mid-range missile that can potentially reach US airbases in Guam.
South Korean military officials said they had not seen some of the long-range missiles before and they appeared to be a new type, according to state-run Yonhap News.
In his New Year speech in January, Mr Kim claimed that the country was in the final stages of developing a long-range ballistic missile that could put the US mainland within range of nuclear weapons. Mr Trump has vowed not to let that happen, and his administration have made clear that they will take a tougher stance on North Korea than the Obama administration, which pursued a policy of “strategic patience”.
Military analysts say it will be still some time before North Korea masters all the necessary technology to launch a targeted nuclear strike on the US.
“The missiles on display today have yet to be tested but by showcasing the missiles under development, North Korea wants to show off its capability that it can strike the US mainland with them one day,” said Cheong Seong-chang, an analyst at the Sejong Institute.
“It will still take a couple of years at least to master such a technology. I think North Korea is still in the early stages of developing long-range missiles. They will have to test fire them many times to perfect the technology in order to install them in real settings. Its mid-to-long-range missiles today do not pose immediate threats to the US, but they could do in the mid-to-long term.”
Mr Kim, accompanied by top aides, clapped heartily as tens of thousands of soldiers shouted oaths of loyalty as they marched past the crowds filling Kim Il Sung square.
Speaking at the parade, Choe Ryong-hae, the country’s second-most powerful man, accused the US of “creating a war situation” on the Korean peninsula. “If the US wages reckless provocation against us, our revolutionary power will instantly counter with annihilating strike, and we will respond to full out war with full out war and to nuclear war with our style of nuclear strike warfare,” Mr Choi said.
Washington has warned that its policy of strategic patience with North Korea is over and said all options including a surgical strike are on the table to rein in North Korea’s nuclear programmes.
Air China recently cancelled some flights between Beijing and Pyongyang but the only Chinese carrier with regular services to North Korea said on Friday the temporary move was due to poor demand.
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi
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