Another North Korean missile test fails, but tensions rise

29 April 2017

A North Korean mid-range ballistic missile test seemed to have failed shortly after launch today, South Korea and the United States said.

This is reported to be the third test-fire flop just this month, but it is still seen as a clear message of defiance as a US super-carrier conducts drills in nearby waters.

North Korean ballistic missile tests are banned by the United Nations because they're seen as part of the North's push for a nuclear-tipped missile that can strike the US mainland.

The latest test came as US officials pivoted from a hard line to diplomacy at the UN in an effort to address what may be Washington's most pressing foreign policy challenge.

President Donald Trump said on Twitter, ''North Korea disrespected the wishes of China & its highly respected President when it launched, though unsuccessfully, a missile today. Bad!'' He did not answer reporters' questions about the missile launch upon returning to the White House from a day trip to Atlanta.

The timing of the North's test was significant - only hours earlier the UN Security Council held a ministerial meeting on Pyongyang's escalating weapons programme. North Korean officials boycotted the meeting, which was chaired by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement that the missile flew for several minutes and reached a maximum height of 71 km before it apparently failed.

It didn't immediately provide an estimate on how far the missile flew, but a US official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters, told the Associated Press it was likely a medium-range KN-17 ballistic missile. It broke up a couple minutes after the launch, and the pieces fell into the Sea of Japan.

Analysts say the KN-17 is a new Scud-type missile developed by North Korea. It fired the same type of missile on 16 April, just a day after a massive military parade where it showed off its expanding missile arsenal, but US officials called that launch a failure.

Some analysts say a missile the North test fired 5 April, which US officials identified as a Scud variant, also might have been a KN-17. US officials said that missile spun out of control and crashed into the sea.

The two earlier launches were conducted from an eastern coastal area, but the missile on Saturday was fired in the west, from an area near Pukchang, just north of the capital, Pyongyang.

Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, speaking after a meeting of Japan's National Security Council, said the missile is believed to have travelled about 50 km and fallen on an inland part of North Korea.

Despite UN prohibitions, North Korea routinely test-fires a variety of ballistic missiles. While shorter-range missiles are somewhat routine, there is strong outside worry about each longer-range North Korean ballistic test.

Saturday's launch comes at a point of particularly high tension. Trump has sent a nuclear-powered submarine and the USS Carl Vinson aircraft super-carrier to Korean waters, and North Korea this week conducted large-scale, live-fire exercises on its eastern coast. The US and South Korea also started installing a missile defence system that is supposed to be partially operational within days.

Trump this week warned of a serious conflict with North Korea even as de-escalation talks were on at the UN (See:Trump warns of 'major, major' conflict with N Korea).

US, China differ
On Friday, the United States and China offered starkly different strategies for addressing North Korea's escalating nuclear threat as Secretary of State Rex.

Tillerson demanded full enforcement of economic sanctions on Pyongyang and urged new penalties. Stepping back from suggestions of US military action, he even offered aid to North Korea if it ends its nuclear weapons programme.

Chairing a ministerial meeting of the UN Security Council on Friday, Tillerson declared that ''failing to act now on the most pressing security issue in the world may bring catastrophic consequences''.

Yet several foreign ministers on the 15-member council expressed fears of a conflict on the Korean Peninsula, which was divided between the American-backed South and communist North even before the 1950-53 Korean War. The conflict ended with no formal peace treaty. And while danger always has lurked, tensions have escalated dramatically as the North's young leader, Kim Jong Un, has expanded a nuclear arsenal his government says is needed to avert a US invasion.

No voice at Friday's session was more important than that of China, a conduit for 90 per cent of North Korea's commerce and a country Trump is pinning hopes on for a peaceful resolution to the nuclear crisis. Trump, who recently hosted President Xi Jinping for a Florida summit, has sometimes praised the Chinese leader for a newfound cooperation to crack down on North Korea and sometimes threatened a go-it-alone US approach if Xi fails to deliver.

Foreign minister Wang Yi said China would adhere to past UN resolutions and wants a denuclearized peninsula. But he spelled out no further punitive steps his government might consider, despite Tillerson's assertions in an interview hours ahead of the council meeting that Beijing would impose sanctions of its own if North Korea conducts another nuclear test.

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