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North Korea defies U.S. pressure, but can't get latest missiles off the ground

North Korea’s latest missile test ended in failure after it exploded “within seconds” of launch. The failed explosion Wednesday undermines the latest comments from a North Korean government official Tuesday that the country was ready to counter any attack by the U.S. or South Korea with “every possible means.”

The failed launch was the latest in a series of increasingly frequent missile and nuclear weapons tests carried out by North Korea in flagrant violation of sanctions put in place by the United Nations and in open defiance of recent U.S. warnings. A North Korean envoy, speaking to Reuters, made it clear that the country is unfazed by the ramped up rhetoric from the U.S. and its allies, and plans to “accelerate” its nuclear and missile programs.


“North Korea fired one missile from an area near the Wonsan Air Base this morning, but it’s presumed to have failed,” South Korea’s defense ministry said in a statement. U.S. Pacific Command, which also monitored the launch, said the missile disintegrated “within seconds of launch.”

There’s no indication what type of rocket the hermit kingdom was testing Wednesday, but it comes just days after the country successfully carried out another missile engine test, one that Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un claimed was a breakthrough in its rocket technology. Earlier this month, it launched four ballistic missiles simultaneously toward Japan, calling it a practice run for hitting Japanese bases where U.S. troops are stationed.

These attacks are seen as a reaction to the ongoing military exercises being carried out by the U.S. and South Korea in the region – with some 300,000 troops taking part in the drills. Known as Foal Eagle and Key Resolve, these exercises are designed to be defensive in nature, but Kim views them as preparation for a pre-emptive strike against his country.

“In light of such huge military forces involved in the joint military exercises, we have no other choice but to continue with our full acceleration of the nuclear programmes and missile programmes. It is because of these hostile activities on the part of the United States and South Korea,” Choe Myong-nam, deputy ambassador at the DPRK (North Korean) mission to the United Nations in Geneva, told Reuters on Tuesday.


Choe added that nuclear capabilities were at the center of his country’s counterstrike strategy: “The United States has been talking about launching pre-emptive strikes at North Korea. And we have been prepared to deter, to counterattack such attacks on the part of the United States. We would utilize every possible means in our hands and the intercontinental ballistic rocket is one of them.”

According to one senior U.S. official speaking to Reuters Tuesday, the Trump administration is considering sweeping sanctions against the hermit kingdom which could include cutting North Korea off from the global financial system in a bid to prevent it from developing its military arsenal any further.

During his visit to South Korea, Japan and China last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, said that military action was “an option,” adding, “We do not believe the conditions are right to engage in any talks at this time. Conditions must change before there is any scope for talks to resume.”

North Korea does not have particularly sophisticated weapons systems, and as the test Wednesday demonstrated, many are unreliable. But the threat is still seen as significant – despite its longest-range operational missile having a range of only about 800 miles, well short of the roughly 5,600 miles to the West Coast of the U.S.

Tillerson said it was too early to talk about any sort of compromise that could include North Korea pressing pause on its development of missile technology in exchange for a scaling back of the military exercises — though he didn’t rule out the possibility.

“A freeze would be an effective, meaningful step in limiting further development of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs — and the administration should be doing what it can to put a freeze in place,” said David Wright, physicist and co-director of the Union of Concerned Scientists global security program.