Suspicious North Korean missile ‘explodes in mid-air’ after launch near Pyongyang

FILE PHOTO: A North Korean flag flutters next to accordion wire at the North Korean Embassy in Kuala Lumpur
FILE PHOTO: A North Korean flag flutters next to concertina wire at the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia March 9, 2017. REUTERS/Edgar Su//File Photo

March 16, 2022

By Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea on Wednesday launched a suspected missile that appeared to explode in the skies over Pyongyang shortly after launch, the South Korean military said amid reports that the nuclear-armed north was attempting to test its largest-ever missile.

The United States and South Korea have warned that North Korea may be preparing to launch a full-range ICBM for the first time since 2017, in violation of United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions.

The projectile was fired from Sunan Airport outside the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said in a statement.

“It is suspected that it failed immediately after launch,” the statement said. It was suspected to be a ballistic missile and appeared to detonate in mid-air while still in the booster phase, at an altitude of less than 20 kilometers (12 miles), a JCS official said. official told Reuters.

The US military’s Indo-Pacific Command statement called it a “ballistic missile launch.” The command did not mention the reported failure, but condemned the launch and urged Pyongyang to refrain from further destabilizing action.

A US State Department spokesman also condemned the launch as violating UN Security Council resolutions banning North Korean ballistic missiles, but declined to comment on the reported failure.

Debris fell in or near Pyongyang after the failed test, Seoul-based NK News reported, citing unnamed witnesses and a photo of the test showing a red-colored ball of smoke at the end of a zigzag plume tracing the missile’s runway in the sky above the city.

The failed launch underscored the danger behind North Korea’s decision to use the airport as a key site for testing large missiles, analysts said.

“The report of Sunan’s failure is concerning because of the potential for damage to densely populated civilian areas,” said Ankit Panda, senior fellow at the US-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

In 2017, an intermediate-range ballistic missile launched from another location in North Korea failed shortly after launch and crashed into an industrial or agricultural complex in the city of Tokchon.

Sunan Airport has been the site of several recent launches, including on February 27 and March 5. North Korea said these tests were for the development of components of a reconnaissance satellite and did not identify which missile it was using, but Seoul and Washington said it was testing a new ICBM system.


Reclusive North Korea has fired missiles with unprecedented frequency this year and conducted its ninth weapons test on March 5, condemned by the United States, South Korea and Japan.

The aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln was conducting military drills in the Yellow Sea and the air defense artillery at Osan Air Force Base in South Korea stepped up drills in response to increased North Korean missile activity, U.S. forces in Asia said on Tuesday.

The new Hwasong-17 ICBM system was unveiled at a military parade in 2020 and reappeared at a defense exhibition in October 2021.

Launches on February 27 and March 5 did not demonstrate the rocket’s full range, and analysts said the North may have used only one stage of the rocket or adjusted its fuel volume to fly at lower altitudes.

The Hwasong-17 would be North Korea’s largest ICBM to date, and the government appears to be restoring some tunnels at its closed nuclear test site, US and South Korean officials said last week.

North Korea has not tested ICBMs or nuclear bombs since 2017, but has said it may resume such tests as denuclearization talks with the United States have stalled.


US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi discussed North Korea during talks on Ukraine on Monday in Rome.

The official said Washington has “serious concerns about recent escalating actions” by North Korea, and Sullivan made clear to Yang the steps the United States believed needed to be taken.

Last week, the United States and 10 other countries lamented the failure of the UN Security Council — where China has veto power — to condemn North Korea’s repeated missile launches, saying it undermined the credibility of the council and the global non-proliferation regime.

Washington on Friday imposed new North Korea-related sanctions targeting Russian individuals and companies following the two most recent launches.

Russia and China, which backed UN sanctions following North Korea’s last ICBM and nuclear tests in 2017, have since argued that sanctions should be eased to encourage dialogue.

(Reporting by Josh Smith in Seoul; Additional reporting by Hyonhee Shin in Seoul, Kantaro Komiya in Tokyo, and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Chang-Ran Kim, Stephen Coates & Simon Cameron-Moore) Suspicious North Korean missile ‘explodes in mid-air’ after launch near Pyongyang

Bobby Allyn

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