North Korea's attempt to mark the anniversary of founding father Kim Il-sung's birthday with another UN-defying missile launch ended in embarrassing failure on Friday, and drew strong criticism from the country's closest ally China.
It marks the second time North Korea has been unsuccessful in an attempt to launch a missile on April 5 — known as Day of the Sun and the most important national holiday on the North Korean calendar — after a similar attempt failed in 2012. North Koreans generally celebrate Day of the Sun by visiting one of the many statues of Kim Il-sung found around the country, or by attending a location of historical significance to the late-ruler's life.
It attempted to fire a missile at about 5.30am local time from its east coast, but it it deviated from a "normal" trajectory, an official from South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff told reporters in Seoul.
South Korean news agency Yonhap said it appeared to be a Musudan medium-range ballistic missile — which has a range of up to 1,800 miles and can be fired from a road mobile launcher — which if confirmed would be the North's first test-launch of such a weapon.
"Timing wise, today's missile was a cannon salute on the Day of the Sun, leading up to the party congress, but now that it has failed, it is an embarrassment," said Chang Gwang-il, a retired South Korean army general.
Friday's unsuccessful launch is the latest in a string of missile tests undertaken by North Korea since the country's fourth nuclear test in January. After a long-range rocket launch in February, North Korea was subjected to a range of sanctions imposed by the United Nations (UN) Security Council aimed at curbing its nuclear program.
But North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who is the grandson of Kim Il-sung, has continued to lead the country in a defiant response, and earlier this month called on its citizens to be ready for nuclear warfare.
According to US-based website 38 North, which specializes in North Korea, satellite imagery collected on Wednesday suggests there has been activity at the country's nuclear site, raising the possibility of a fifth nuclear test.
China has been public in its anger at Pyongyang's nuclear tests and rocket launches, and backed the UN sanctions.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said on Friday the UN Security Council was clear on North Korean rocket launches.
"At present, the situation on the peninsula is complex and sensitive," he told reporters. "We hope all parties can strictly respect the decisions of the Security Council and avoid taking any steps that could further worsen tensions."
China's official state news agency Xinhua, which largely acts as a mouthpiece for the government, was more direct.
"The firing of a mid-range ballistic missile on Friday by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), though failed, marks the latest in a string of saber-rattling that, if unchecked, will lead the country to nowhere," the news agency said in an English language commentary.
"Nuclear weapons will not make Pyongyang safer. On the contrary, its costly military endeavors will keep on suffocating its economy."
The US Defense Department said in a statement the launch was detected and tracked by the US Strategic Command which also assessed it had failed.
"We call again on North Korea to refrain from actions and rhetoric that further raise tensions in the region and focus instead on taking concrete steps toward fulfilling its international commitments and obligations," a US State Department official said.
The United States, which has 28,000 troops stationed in South Korea, said on Thursday it was aware of reports that North Korea was preparing to test intermediate-range missiles and was closely monitoring the Korean peninsula.
The North is scheduled to hold its ruling party congress in early May, the first such meeting in 36 years.
The North could not completely ignore the sanctions, but considered it the right time to attempt a missile launch to send a message to the world "we don't surrender to sanctions", said Chang, the retired South Korean general.
Some experts had predicted North Korea would undertake a test-fire of the Musudan, as part of its efforts to produce an intercontinental ballistic missile that places the mainland United States within range.
North Korea regularly threatens to destroy South Korea and the United States, and often fires missiles during periods of tension in the region or when it comes under pressure to curb its defiance and abandon its weapons programs.
North Korea and South Korea are still technically at war following their three-year conflict ending in a truce in 1953, with no peace treaty ever signed.
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