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North Korean missile test ends in failure, as South and U.S. watch for ICBM test

People watch a television screen showing a news broadcast with file footage of a North Korean missile test, at a railway station in Seoul on Wednesday, after North Korea fired an "unidentified projectile."
Jung Yeon-je
AFP via Getty Images
People watch a television screen showing a news broadcast with file footage of a North Korean missile test, at a railway station in Seoul on Wednesday, after North Korea fired an "unidentified projectile."

Updated March 16, 2022 at 11:48 AM ET

SEOUL — An attempted North Korean missile launch ended in apparent failure Wednesday, according to South Korea's military. It comes after days of close monitoring by Seoul and Washington, in anticipation of a possible intercontinental ballistic missile test, which Pyongyang has not conducted since 2017.

The South's Joint Chiefs of Staff say the projectile was launched from Pyongyang's Sunan district. The Sunan airfield was the site of test-launches on Feb. 27 and Mar. 5, which Pyongyang claims were tests of components for a military reconnaissance satellite.

Neither Pyongyang nor Seoul has confirmed whether or not Wednesday's launch involved the same kind of projectile as the March and February launches. The U.S. and South Korea say that those launches were actually cover for ICBM tests.

The Yonhap News Agency quotes anonymous sources as saying the missile appears to have exploded in midair at an altitude of less than 12.4 miles.

Wednesday's attempted launch is the first since the election in South Korea of conservative opposition party candidate Yoon Suk Yeol on Mar. 9. Before that, Pyongyang had conducted nine tests so far this year, the most since Kim Jong Un came to power in North Korea in 2011.

North Korea tends to "concentrate tests into a period of time when geopolitical circumstances are favorable to them," argues Yang Uk, an associate researcher at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, a Seoul-based think tank.

"For example, they couldn't conduct any tests during the Beijing Olympics because of their relationship with China," Pyongyang's main ally, Yang says. "That seems to be why they launched missiles at such short intervals during January, even though they didn't have to."

"North Korea's missile tests will probably proceed in periodic cycles of compression and relaxation," predicts Park Hyeong-jung, an emeritus researcher at the Korea Institute For National Unification (KINU), a Seoul-based government think tank.

Intensive testing will take place, he adds, when technical preparations are complete, and Pyongyang wants to pressure Washington and Seoul with military provocations. He believes the current spate of tests could have been planned at least a year in advance.

Park points out that North Korea last year laid out a five-year plan to upgrade its nuclear arsenal. And while the speed of testing may fluctuate, "this timetable cannot be significantly changed, due to the limitations of [North Korea's] technical progress," Park says.

Until the plan is complete, by 2025 or 2026, and North Korea has the ability to reach all of the U.S. mainland with missiles capable of carrying multiple nuclear warheads, known as MIRVs, Park predicts that Pyongyang will shun U.S. offers of nuclear negotiations.

On the other hand, some experts believe Pyongyang will delay actually testing atomic bombs and ICBMs for as long as possible. Such tests would violate a self-imposed moratorium since 2017, and could carry heavy costs for Pyongyang, including triggering additional U.N. sanctions, and angering ally Beijing.

Since the failed 2019 summit between then-President Donald Trump and North Korea's Kim, the North has "continuously staged low-intensity provocations," argues Cho Han-bum, a North Korea expert, also with KINU, including tests of ."short-range missile launches and production of fissile materials."

"From there, it will move on to 'grey zone' strategies, just short of crossing the red line," Cho predicts. Those include satellite launches, which involve much of the same technology as ICBMs, and rebuilding the Punggye-ri nuclear test site, which was demolished in 2018 in an effort to satisfy demands that North Korea halt nuclear testing.

Pyongyang may also see the change of administrations in Seoul as a window of opportunity. President elect Yoon and Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida have agreed to step up cooperation with Washington in dealing with North Korea. That's in contrast to the frosty ties between Seoul and Tokyo that have marked much of outgoing President Moon Jae-in's administration. But it could take time.

Similarly, the U.S. military has stepped up intelligence collection and missile defense exercises in and around the Korean peninsula, in response to Pyongyang's recent spate of missile tests. Seoul and Washington are also reportedly considering reviving military drills involving the deployment of nuclear-capable bombers from Guam to the Korean peninsula.

Many of these military maneuvers have been suspended, postponed or hushed up since 2018, in order to leave room for diplomacy with Pyongyang. They may, however, make a comeback, as nuclear talks remain stalled, and a new administration in Seoul prioritizes military deterrence over diplomatic engagement.

But until that happens, North Korea may calculate that the window for testing remains open. Some analysts, including KINU's Cho Han-bum, predict the next opportune moment for a launch could be April 15, the birthday of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, a holiday celebrated in the North as the "Day of the Sun."

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Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.