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North Korea defiantly attempts another missile test, but launch ends in failure

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North Korea attempted a new missile launch from an eastern city on the Sea of Japan early Sunday, but the operation ended in failure shortly after launch, U.S. and South Korean officials said.

It was not clear whether it was a long-range ballistic missile, but the attempted launch in South Hamgyong province, near a major submarine base at Sinpo, was a sign of the secretive country’s continuing attempts to develop an aggressive weapons program.

U.S. Pacific Command said it detected a missile about 6:20 a.m. Korean time. The device apparently “blew up almost instantly,” Cmdr. Dave Benham, a command spokesman, said in a statement. The type of missile is still unknown, he said.

As of Sunday morning, North Korean state media hasn't reported on the test failure. Even government minders chaperoning foreign journalists on a tour of Pyongyang did not know that it had happened.

On Pyongyang's streets, the mood was calm. Residents — on a three-day vacation for the 105th birthday of the country's founder-president Kim Il Sung — relaxed in rowboats on the Taedong River, which runs through the city, and roller-skated in a small park.

They lined up by the hundreds to file through a flower exhibition where models of intercontinental ballistic missiles were flanked by displays of flowers named for Kim and his son, Kim Jong Il, who ruled the country until his death in 2011.

"This is to demonstrate the might of our national defense," said a guide in a traditional Korean dress. "The scientists and technicians working in national defense, they show their respectful feelings for our president Kim Il Sung."

The missile launched Sunday was never a threat to the United States mainland, though North Korea’s increasingly sophisticated weapons are considered a threat to its neighbors, including South Korea and Japan.

“U.S. Pacific Command is fully committed to working closely with our allies in the Republic of Korea and in Japan to maintain security,” Benham said.

The test missile launch fell short of international fears that the secretive state would attempt its sixth test of a nuclear weapon.

In Washington, the reaction was muted.

“The president and his military team are aware of North Korea's most recent unsuccessful missile launch,” U.S. Defense Secretary James N. Mattis said in a statement. “The president has no further comment.”

The launch came as Vice President Mike Pence flew to Seoul for a 10-day Asia trip intended to discuss North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and assure allies in the region.

North Korea has been conducting frequent tests of ballistic missiles as part of its program to develop a missile capable of reaching the continental United States — a goal many analysts say is at least a decade away.

The attempted launch on Sunday came a day after a massive military parade in Pyongyang, hosted in celebration of the 105th birthday of Kim Il Sung.

On April 15, 2016, North Korea also attempted the test launch of a medium-range ballistic missile, apparently to mark the founder’s birthday. That test also failed, but the effort nonetheless drew condemnation from the United Nations Security Council.

The attempted launch, failed or not, is a pointed rebuke at strengthened warnings from China and the U.S., and raises concerns that North Korea is attempting to continue its advance toward becoming a nuclear state despite years of effort by the international community to curb the country’s atomic program.

North Korea conducted the test at the same time that it invited dozens of foreign journalists for a rare glimpse inside the reclusive state — and as the world’s attention is focused on the region.

The isolated nation has conducted at least 50 missile tests since the dynastic young ruler Kim Jong Un took power after his father’s death in 2011, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonpartisan research group in Washington that maintains a database of the nation’s activities.

That includes two dozen since the beginning of 2016, in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.

The North successfully launched a medium-range missile, called the KN-15, on the morning of April 5 from a land-based site near the eastern port city of Sinpo, according to U.S. Pacific Command headquarters.

It traveled for nine minutes before landing in the East Sea, as have other recent missiles. That missile test prompted a quick response from U.S. military officials who monitor the North’s airspace for provocations; they said it never posed a threat to the American mainland.

North Korea launched the first ballistic missile under President Trump a month after he took office.

The rogue state is still technically at war with South Korea, a U.S. ally that has about 28,000 American forces stationed on bases that are largely within a few hundred miles of the shared Korean border.

North Korea’s military, in a statement released Friday through the official Korean Central News Agency, warned it would “ruthlessly ravage” the U.S. if it came under attack.

The country has handed a lengthy prison sentence to an American tourist, and been accused by South Korea of sneaking across the border in 2015 and planting land mines that severely injured two soldiers.

Malaysian authorities have also accused North Korea of helping carry out the assassination of Kim Jong Nam, the half brother of Kim Jong Un. That attack — during the day at a crowded Kuala Lumpur international airport — allegedly involved VX nerve agent, a banned chemical weapon.

The North, which security experts say could have more than a dozen nuclear devices, first conducted an underground test in 2006. The tests’ power has increased over time, and last year state media reported advancements in the miniaturization and manufacturing of nuclear warheads in addition to its strongest experiment to date in September.

“The standardization of the nuclear warhead will enable the DPRK to produce at will and as many as it wants a variety of smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear warheads of higher strike power,” the government said in September, using a preferred acronym to identify the country.

“This has definitely put on a higher level the DPRK’s technology of mounting nuclear warheads on ballistic missiles.”

Security experts in recent years have begun to shift their focus away from disarming the country to studying methods for deterring the country’s desire to use them — and also thinking about limiting its ability to deliver them.

At the same time, the North has made steady progress in its land- and sea-based missile programs, which already have the ability to strike regional American allies in Seoul or Tokyo. In a televised New Year’s Day message this year, Kim boasted that the country was also making significant progress in its effort to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of striking American targets in the Pacific Ocean, or perhaps even the U.S. mainland.

“We see the North Korean weapons programs as increasingly destabilizing, both for Northeast Asia and for the globe,” said U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Susan Thornton.

A looming concern for American officials is the extent to which China can — or is willing to — apply additional economic pressure to persuade the North to denuclearize, or perhaps to talk about it. Trump said recently that the United States would tackle the problem alone, if needed, a posture questioned by experts who note the issue’s regional complexity.

“We want to see even better cooperation to try to bring about a solution to the North Korea threat, but we’ll certainly be talking to them about what more they can do, and we are looking to them to be doing more in the future,” Thornton said.

China, which has supported international sanctions efforts, also fears destabilizing the Kim government. If the country were to fall, the Chinese face the prospect of a refugee crisis on their shared border or, perhaps more troubling to them, a united Korea backed by the United States.

Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, on Friday warned that conflict could break out “at any moment” and cautioned both sides to stay calm.

“Once a war really happens, the result will be nothing but multiple loss,” he said. “No one can become a winner.”

jonathan.kaiman@latimes.com

Special correspondents Stiles reported from Seoul and Meyers from Beijing, and Times staff writer Kaiman reported from Pyongyang, North Korea. Times staff writer W.J. Hennigan contributed to this report from Washington, D.C.

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UPDATES:

7:45 p.m.: This story was updated with details from Pyongyang, North Korea.

5:30 p.m.: The story was updated with a statement from the U.S. defense secretary.

4:35 p.m.: The story was updated with a statement from U.S. Pacific Command.

This story was originally published at 4:25 p.m.

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