North Korean missile failure after hardware show

By Anna Fifield

With the kind of fanfare that only a totalitarian state can muster, North Korea flaunted missiles that can theoretically reach the US and stated it was prepared to counter any US attack with "a nuclear war of our own".

But it soon looked like style over substance. North Korea somewhat ruined the impression created with the parade, which took place on the most important day of the year for Kim Jong Un's regime, with a failed missile launch.

The ballistic missile was fired from the Sinpo area on the east coast shortly before 6 am local time, US Pacific Command said. It blew up almost immediately, complicating efforts to identify the missile's size and range.

North Korea fired a land-based version of its medium-range, submarine-launched ballistic missile from the same area this month. That exercise also failed.

The latest missile was fired just minutes after US Vice-President Mike Pence took off from Alaska on his way to Seoul, where he is expected to issue a strong warning to North Korea to stop its provocative behaviour or face consequences.

Trump was at his private club in West Palm Beach, Florida. He had just three junior staffers and K.T. McFarland, a deputy national security adviser who was recently pushed out, with him. Trump had nothing to say about the launch, said Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis. "The President and his military team are aware of North Korea's most recent unsuccessful missile launch," Mattis said in a statement. "The President has no further comment."

The missile was launched into the sea off the east coast of the Korean Peninsula, where a US Navy strike group is patrolling. Military commanders ordered the group, led by the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, back to the area this month as tensions with North Korea mounted. The group has the ability to shoot down incoming missiles and launch missiles of its own.

David Santoro of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies tweeted: "Nevermind #NorthKorea's missile test failed. You know what's also failed? Attempts to deter its launch." Ian Bremmer of the Eurasia Group noted: "Test was in direction of US strike force. Undeterred by US muscle-flexing."

The military hardware paraded through Pyongyang shows that Kim is unrelenting in his quest to develop a missile capable of reaching the United States. Experts were stunned at the sheer number of new missiles on display during the parade - including, apparently, a new and previously unknown type of intercontinental ballistic missile.

"It's not like not doing a nuclear test was good news - this is all part of the same programme," said Jeffrey Lewis, head of the East Asia programme at the James Martin Centre for Nonproliferation Studies in California. North Korea has claimed to be able to make nuclear weapons small enough to be able to fit on a missile. "It's like they're saying: 'Hey, here's some other bad news'," Lewis said.

A visitor walks by a TV showing file footage of a North Korea's ballistic missile launch. Photo / AP
A visitor walks by a TV showing file footage of a North Korea's ballistic missile launch. Photo / AP

The two-hour-long parade took place on a day officially known as the "Day of the Sun," the anniversary of the 1912 birth of Kim Il Sung, North Korea's founder. A relaxed Kim Jong Un stood smiling on a balcony as untold tens of thousands of soldiers marched past, planes in a formation flew overhead and missile transporters rolled through the square in front of him. He did not look like a man worried about a strike ordered by Trump, like that in Syria earlier this month, or concerned about China's increasing anger over his belligerence.

Kim said in his New Year's address that North Korea was in the "final stage" of preparations to test-launch an intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM. That prompted Trump to tweet in response: "It won't happen!"

North Korea has previously shown off at these parades two kinds of ICBMs, the KN-08 and the KN-14, both with the theoretical capacity to reach the US mainland. Saturday's parade included the same vehicles as in the past, but instead of carrying missiles they were carrying huge, previously unseen missile canisters. Those could have contained the KN-08 and KN-14, or something else - or nothing at all.

"This was a promise of future capabilities more than a demonstration of existing missiles," said Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, which tries to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. "We do not know if there is actually an ICBM in that canister. But it is certainly coming."

Furthermore, the canisters are probably an indication that North Korea is pressing ahead with solid-fuel technology, because canisters are used to keep the temperature stable for solid-fuel missiles. By using solid fuel, North Korea can roll out its missiles from a hangar or tunnel ready to launch, rather than having to fuel them on a gantry like the older liquid-fuelled rockets. That allows much less time for the missiles to be detected by satellites.

It also appeared that North Korea had shown off a third and previously unknown ICBM. The black-and-white missiles looked like KN-08s but were slightly smaller. They were rolled out on vehicles usually used for the medium-range Musudan missile, which North Korea tested a barrage of last year.

Markus Schiller, a German aerospace engineer who specialises in missiles, cast doubts on how much progress North Korea was making. "The Soviets tried to build a solid-fuel missile and it took them more than 15 years to get it up and running. You don't just get a solid-fuel missile overnight."

- Washington Post

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