TOKYO - North Korea tried but failed to launch an intermediate-range missile Friday, the birthday of the country's founder, Kim Il Sung, the South Korean military said.
"North Korea appears to have tried a missile launch from the East Sea [Sea of Japan] area early morning today, but it is presumed to have failed," South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said.
The missile appeared to be a Musudan, also known as a BM-25, the Joint Chiefs said. South Korea warned Thursday that it had spotted a mobile launcher carrying one or two Musudan ballistic missiles near Wonsan on North Korea's east coast.
A U.S. defense official said that the missile launched was "detected and tracked" by U.S. Strategic Command systems. "We assess that the launch failed," he said.
The Musudan is an intermediate-range ballistic missile capable of traveling 1,500 to 2,500 miles - putting the U.S. territory of Guam within reach - and of carrying a 1.3-ton nuclear warhead, according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative.
North Korea has displayed the Musudan at its military parades and is believed to have supplied assembly kits for the missile to Iran, but it had never tested this model of missile before.
Jeffrey Lewis, head of the East Asia program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in California, said that the failure would "reinforce the persistent denial" about North Korea's capabilities.
"But in fact, they will have learned a lot from this launch. Not as much as they would have learned if it had succeeded, but still something," Lewis said.
The Musudan uses the same sort of engine as the submarine-launched ballistic missile that North Korea tested last year but which also failed.
"Clearly they have a problem, but maybe next time it will work. It took them a couple of launches to get the Taepodong-2 going," Lewis said, referring to the ballistic-missile technology that has now put two North Korean satellites into orbit.
In a string of increasingly ferocious threats through its state media, Kim Jong Un's regime has been vowing missile launches and nuclear attacks, often with specific threats to blow up New York, Washington and the South Korean presidential Blue House.
At the same time, North Korea has been making a series of claims about technological advances, from building solid-fuel rocket engines to miniaturizing nuclear warheads. The regime recently claimed that it could send a nuclear-tipped missile to the U.S. mainland.
Although this has not been proved, U.S. military officials and nonproliferation experts say that North Korea is clearly working toward this goal. The Musudan test could be part of this program.
At a hearing of a Senate Armed Services subcommittee this week, Brian McKeon, a senior Pentagon official, said that North Korea's weapons and missile programs pose a growing threat to the United States and its allies in East Asia.
North Korea is "seeking to develop longer-range ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons to the United States and continues efforts to bring [a road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile] to operational capacity," he said.
Although an untested long-range missile was unlikely to be reliable, North Korea's successful satellite launches showed it was mastering the technologies that would be needed, McKeon said.
Since Kim Jong Un ordered his military to conduct a fourth nuclear test in January - which North Korea claimed as a hydrogen-bomb explosion, although outside experts are highly skeptical - there has been a steady stream of projectiles emanating from North Korea.
In February, Kim oversaw the launch of what North Korea said was a satellite launch vehicle but which was widely viewed as part of an intercontinental ballistic missile program. Since then, there have been numerous short-range missile launches and rockets fired into the Sea of Japan.
North Korea is banned by U.N. Security Council resolutions from launching ballistic missiles or carrying out nuclear tests, but it continues to do so.
The international community has responded to North Korea's latest provocations with tough sanctions aimed at cutting off the state's ability to procure parts and finance its weapons-of-mass-destruction program.
This push coincided with two-month-long drills between the U.S. and South Korean militaries, during which they are practicing their response to the collapse of North Korea. The drills, which conclude at the end of this month, include computer-simulated "decapitation strikes" on the North Korean leadership.
Amid this background of heightened tensions, North Korea has been preparing for two key events - the anniversary of Kim Il Sung's birth on April 15 and the first congress of the communist Workers' Party in 36 years.
Kim Il Sung, the current leader's grandfather and "eternal president" of North Korea, died in 1994, but his birthday continues to be celebrated as the "Day of the Sun" in a country that is held together by a pervasive personality cult. It is usually celebrated with great fanfare in Pyongyang, often with elaborate military events. Meanwhile, the country is in the grip of a "70-day campaign" to prepare for the congress, set for early next month for the first time since 1980. Analysts expect Kim Jong Un to use the event to bolster his legitimacy.
Kim, who is 33, is not only incredibly young by standards of Korea, where age is revered, but also did not have the kind of long preparation and introduction his father and predecessor, Kim Jong Il, enjoyed.