Another North Korean Missile Test Fails As Tensions Continue To Rise

The North Koreans failed to successfully test a longer-range missile again yesterday, but tensions on the Korean Peninsula seem destined to increase in any case.

Kim Jong Un North Korean Flag

For the second time in a month, North Korea attempted to test fire its latest ballistic missile and failed:

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea launched a missile on Saturday, even as the United States and China have been seeking to curb the North’s military ambitions. But the test ended in failure, the South Korean military said. It was the second consecutive failure in the past two weeks.

The missile took off from a location near Pukchang, northeast of Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, the South Korean military said in a statement. It did not identify what type of missile was launched.

Cmdr. Dave Benham, a spokesman for the United States Pacific Command, said the American military had “detected what we assess was a North Korean missile launch” from near the Pukchang airfield.

“The missile did not leave North Korean territory,” Commander Benham added. “The North American Aerospace Defense Command determined the missile launch from North Korea did not pose a threat to North America.”

The missile flew only “for several minutes” to the northeast, reaching an altitude of 44 miles, the South Korean military said. It provided no further details.

It was the North’s first test since the government of Kim Jong-un launched a ballistic missile near its submarine base on North Korea’s east coast on April 16. That launch was also a failure, with the projectile exploding just after liftoff.

In a statement, White House officials said that President Trump had been briefed on the launch. Mr. Trump said on Twitter: “North Korea disrespected the wishes of China & its highly respected President when it launched, though unsuccessfully, a missile today. Bad!”

The test on Saturday came hours after Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson led a ministerial meeting of the United Nations Security Council on Friday. Referring to North Korea’s advancing nuclear and missile programs, Mr. Tillerson warned that “failing to act now on the most pressing security issue in the world may bring catastrophic consequences.”

The world has been watching North Korea closely in the past several weeks, amid fear that the country might attempt its sixth underground nuclear test. Satellite imagery of the nuclear test site in the country’s northeast showed that the North was ready for a test, analysts said.

But the country has so far refrained from conducting a nuclear test or launching one of its intercontinental ballistic missiles under development to mark major anniversaries in April. Instead, it celebrated those anniversaries with a military parade featuring new missiles and a massive live-fire drill.

It remained unclear what has caused the series of missile test failures.

Over the past three years, a covert war over the missile program has broken out between North Korea and the United States. As the North’s skills grew, President Barack Obama ordered a surge in countermeasures against the missile launches, The New York Times reported last month, including through electronic-warfare techniques.

It is unclear how successful the program has been, because it is almost impossible to tell whether any individual launch failed because of sabotage, faulty engineering or bad luck.

Yesterday’s test, which of course went unacknowledged by either the North Korean government or the official state media, was the latest in a series of missile tests that have largely been failures. In addition to the tests noted above, the Kim regime attempted a missile test in March that failed just as the ones this past month have, for example. In fact, of the nine tests of the country’s Pukguksong-2 medium range missiles that have been launched dating back into last year, all but one of them have been failures, with the missile either exploding on the launch pad without getting off the ground or failing shortly after launch and crashing into the Sea of Japan far short of its intended test range. In February, the DPRK did manage to successfully test four of its SCUD missiles that had been enhanced with extended ranges, but these missiles do not rely on the same solid-fuel technology as the new generation of missiles. This suggests that either the North Koreans have hit a technological wall that they have yet to get over despite multiple attempts, that there is some kind of design flaw that they have not fixed, or that the program is being sabotaged in some way.

All of this comes at a time when things appear to be heating up on the Korean peninsula that can be seen in both to what seem to be threatening moves by the regime in Pyongyang and what has clearly been a change in tone from Washington, D.C. In the first respect, the attention of the world was directed at North Korea earlier this month as the nation marked the 105th anniversary of the birth of the nation’s founder Kim Il Sung. In the week leading up to that day, there was much anticipation about whether or not Kim Jong Un, the nation’s current leader, would use the day to take some action that would grab attention with much of the speculation centering around a sixth underground nuclear test. While that test never occurred, there was a missile test late on that day that apparently exploded on the pad shortly after launch. At this point, there are some in the West openly wondering if we’re seeing the results of American cyberwarfare or some other form of sabotage, and while it’s impossible to rule that out entirely it’s equally likely that the North Koreans have simply not been able to master the technology involved in designing and launching longer-range missiles.

As I noted, this also comes at the same time that we’re seeing a significantly different tone regarding North Korea from the United States, one that can only been described as more aggressive and openly hostile than we’ve seen in the past. In an interview meant to mark his first 100 days in office earlier this week, for example, President Trump raised eyebrows and nerves by suggesting that there was a good possibility of a major military conflict on the peninsula:

HONG KONG — President Trump warned Thursday of the possibility of a “major, major conflict” with North Korea, in an interview in which he said he was seeking a diplomatic solution to concerns that Pyongyang was preparing to conduct another nuclear test.

In the interview with Reuters, Mr. Trump praised President Xi Jinping of China for his efforts to resolve the dispute over North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons programs, but he cautioned that diplomatic efforts might fail.

“There is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea,” he said. “Absolutely.”

Mr. Trump’s remarks came amid signs that North Korea might soon conduct another underground detonation at its Punggye-ri nuclear test site despite Mr. Trump’s warning not to do so. China has played a mediating role in the crisis, as Mr. Trump has urged Mr. Xi to use Beijing’s leverage with North Korea, a longtime ally, to persuade it not to conduct a test.

Mr. Trump’s remarks came amid signs that North Korea might soon conduct another underground detonation at its Punggye-ri nuclear test site despite Mr. Trump’s warning not to do so. China has played a mediating role in the crisis, as Mr. Trump has urged Mr. Xi to use Beijing’s leverage with North Korea, a longtime ally, to persuade it not to conduct a test.

“I believe he is trying very hard. He certainly doesn’t want to see turmoil and death. He doesn’t want to see it,” Mr. Trump said of Mr. Xi. “He is a good man. He is a very good man, and I got to know him very well.”

In the interview, Mr. Trump actually offered some grudging praise for North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un.

“He’s 27 years old. His father dies, took over a regime,” he said. “So say what you want, but that is not easy, especially at that age.”

“I hope he’s rational,” Mr. Trump added of Mr. Kim.

The United States has been pressing the United Nations to impose more sanctions on North Korea over its nuclear and missile programs. The diplomatic efforts have coincided with military maneuvers by the United States and South Korea in Pocheon, northeast of Seoul, South Korea, where the allies have demonstrated some of their latest weapons. In addition, the Michigan, a submarine armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles, has arrived in the South Korean port city of Busan. And a Navy strike group led by the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson has been sent to the Sea of Japan, which borders the Korean Peninsula.

Meanwhile, at the United Nations yesterday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called for increased international sanctions on the Kim regime and increased compliance from the rest of the world with the existing sanctions regime:

UNITED NATIONS — Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said on Friday that the United States was keeping “all options” on the table if diplomacy failed to persuade North Korea to halt its nuclear weapons program.

Speaking at the United Nations Security Council, Mr. Tillerson called for stiffer international sanctions against North Korea and threatened to impose sanctions on third parties that continued to cooperate with the country. He also demanded that the North dismantle its nuclear weapons program before talks could begin.

“The more we bide our time, the sooner we will run out of it,” he said. “All options for reacting to future provocations must remain on the table.”

He added, “North Korea must take concrete steps to reduce the threat that its illegal weapons programs pose to the United States and our allies before we can consider talks.”

Mr. Tillerson’s speech was his first before the United Nations and represented stepped-up attention by the Trump administration to the growing North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile threat.

China has insisted on what it calls a parallel approach, calling on the United States to stop its military buildup on the Korean Peninsula in exchange for North Korea’s suspension of missile tests. North Korea is already under a raft of stiff sanctions from the Security Council and has been found to repeatedly violate them.

The United States has so far rejected China’s plan, and North Korea has yet to accept it, either.

China’s foreign affairs minister, Wang Yi, called for a suspension of joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea and warned against “provocative rhetoric or action.”

He also pushed back sharply against the American line that China holds the key to persuading North Korea to suspend its nuclear program. Others need to show “political wisdom,” he said.

He said the resumption of talks could tamp down the nuclear threat, pointing out that since talks broke down, North Korea has stepped up its nuclear tests.

Mr. Tillerson was scheduled to meet with Mr. Wang after the Security Council meeting.

The United Nations secretary general, Antonio Guterres, who was called on by Mr. Tillerson to give an update on the situation on the Korean Peninsula before the other ministers spoke, said that the “absence of communication channels with the D.P.R.K. is dangerous,” using the initials for North Korea.

“We need to act now,” Mr. Guterres said.

While some of these public comments by Trump and Tillerson are arguably alarming, it’s unknown what might be going on behind the scenes, particularly with regard to discussions between the United States and China regarding the direction that the DPRK has taken over the past several months and years. There appears to be at least some indication that the two nations have been talking more about the issue than was true in the past, especially in the wake of the President’s meeting with Chinese President Xi in Florida earlier this month but in reality dating back to earlier in Trump’s Presidency with what seem to be a series of officially acknowledged phone conversations between the two that at least seem to be more frequent than what we’ve seen in recent years. Whether this will result in new efforts by China to push the North Koreans to curtail their provocative actions, and whether the North Koreans would comply with those efforts, is unknown at this point but if it is going on it’s at least more than we’ve seen from Beijing in the past. In any case, things do seem to be heating up on the Korean peninsula again. Whether it will lead to something resembling a diplomatic breakthrough, collapse into further rancor that provokes a more serious crisis, or ends in nothing as similar efforts have in the past remains to be seen.

FILED UNDER: Asia, Military Affairs, National Security, , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. Slugger says:

    The UN estimates the 2015 GDP of NorK at $17.4 billion while the US had a GDPof $18 trillion that year. I would be very worried about war with them if I hadn’t already died from Ebola.

  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Another failed missile test. It is imperative that we invade now, before they provoke us further with yet another failed test.

  3. Mikey says:

    I never thought I’d see the possibility of a war more stupid and useless than the 2003 Iraq war, but wow, here we are.

  4. gVOR08 says:

    “I hope he’s rational,” Mr. Trump added of Mr. Kim.

    with unconscious irony.

  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Mikey: Today’s GOP: the gift that keeps on giving.

  6. michael reynolds says:

    Kasich was talking up a decapitation strike yesterday. I would not be entirely surprised if we tried that, it’s the number #2 answer behind a diplomatic solution.

    I have a hard time seeing how Chubby Kim or any NK leader could survive the kind of stand-down required for a diplomatic solution. NK prestige is very openly connected to nukes and ICBMs. It would be the equivalent of us mothballing the entire Navy. I don’t know how a tinpot dictator survives that. What’s the incentive? A better life for his people?

    As Kasich correctly noted, the biggest problem wouldn’t be the bang-bang, it would be intelligence capable of reliable tracking Kim’s location. And then the small problem of quickly finding some surviving general who can stand up a government while simultaneously submitting to our will. So, yeah, still not a great alternative.

  7. CSK says:

    @gVOR08: @gVOR08:

    And he also got to know Xi very well in the course of a 10 minute conversation.

  8. gVOR08 says:

    Samee like W looked Putin in the eye and saw into his soul. I think we’re about to lose our lunch money to China.

  9. JohnMcC says:

    Our President has increased the strain on the entire structure so much with stupid talk that it is indeed hard to see any way to loosen the knot. The crowning touch is his statement that SKorea owes us for the THAAD missile system that apparently many SKoreans didn’t want — during their presidential election. Making it clear he didn’t know that those missiles remain ours.

    If the world gets to the end of his tenure with all it’s cities intact we will have to count our blessings. And promise never ever to do that again.

  10. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: If, recently, I had not been hearing people making that argument seriously, it would be funnier.

  11. Not the IT Dept. says:

    Friend of mine lives in Tokyo and he says there are workplace civilian drills in case of hostilities breaking out. The Japanese are taking this very seriously and everyone in his business sector (executive recruitment, headhunting) thinks Trump is nuts. A couple of months ago I sent him the video link of Abe rolling his eyes after his handshake with Trump at the White House and his sent it out to his entire contact list of over 1,200 names. The Japanese media had cut off that part from the newscasts, and there was quite a little bump in popularity for Abe in the executive recruitment sector for the next week or so.

  12. Stormy Dragon says:

    @michael reynolds:

    The real problem is that Seoul is within artillery range of NK and there are thousands of guns aimed at the city. Even a brief conflict with NK would result in massive civilian casualties for SK.

  13. Tyrell says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: If they keep testing, maybe the darn thing will come straight back down into Mr. Kim’s lap and save everyone some trouble.

  14. Matt says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Yeah missiles aren’t even the issue. There’s not a system out there that could intercept those arty shells…