SEOUL, South Korea — A North Korean missile test ended in failure Wednesday when the rocket spun out of control and plunged into the ocean in a fiery crash, a senior U.S. defense official said.
The launch came shortly before U.S. President Donald Trump’s first meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping later this week, raising speculation that it might have been timed to get their attention.
The extended-range Scud missile suffered an in-flight failure and fell into the sea off North Korea’s east coast, according to U.S. imagery and assessments, the official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the launch publicly.
Initial U.S. and South Korean assessments had indicated it was an advanced KN-15 medium-range missile, whose first known test by North Korea was in February. But unlike the KN-15, which uses solid fuel, the missile fired Wednesday used liquid fuel and was fired from a fixed location, rather than a mobile launcher, the official said.
The South Korean military said the missile was fired from land near the east coast city of Sinpo and flew only about 40 miles.
North Korea is pushing hard to upgrade its weapons systems to cope with what it calls U.S. hostility. Many weapons experts say the North could have a functioning nuclear-tipped missile capable of reaching the continental U.S. within a few years. North Korea carried out two nuclear tests last year.
Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS think tank in Honolulu, said he was expecting North Korea would do something to coincide with the Trump-Xi summit, perhaps conduct a nuclear test. The missile launch may be a precursor, with more to come as the summit starts Thursday, he said.
“I’ve joked before that they don’t mind being hated but they definitely hate to be ignored,” Cossa said.
Recent satellite imagery shows possible preparations for a test at North Korea’s main nuclear test site, including the laying of communication cables used to initiate a test and collect data.
North Korea’s state media have said the world will soon witness what they called “eventful successes” in the country’s space development. The United States, South Korea and others call North Korea’s space program a cover for its long-range missile development program.
South Korea’s Foreign Ministry called the North’s latest missile launch a “reckless provocation” that posed a threat to international peace, while Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said his country lodged a strong protest over the launch.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson acknowledged the launch in a brief statement but said the U.S. had spoken enough about North Korea and would not comment further.
Trump has said China must do more to pressure North Korea to halt its nuclear and missile programs. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Wednesday that all sides needed to be involved.
“If we are serious about solving this issue, we need to tackle the root of it,” she said at a regular news briefing. “We need to balance the interest of each side. China wants to make efforts with all sides involved, to make denuclearization a reality, and ensure peace in the region.”
Analysts say North Korea might also time nuclear and long-range rocket tests to the April 15 birthday of North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, the late grandfather of current leader Kim Jong Un.
The North’s latest missile launch also came during annual military drills between the United States and South Korea. North Korea sees the drills as an invasion rehearsal.
Two weeks ago, the South Korean and U.S. militaries said they had detected a failed North Korean ballistic missile launch. Earlier in March, North Korea fired four ballistic missiles that flew about 620 miles, with three of them landing in waters that Japan claims as its exclusive economic zone. The KN-15 missile tested in February flew about 310 miles.