North Korean Missile “Blows Up” During Launch; President Trump Aware, Has “No Further Comment”
The initial official reactions to the failed missile launch are beginning to hit the wires:
U.S. Pacific Command on North Korea missile launch:
U.S. Pacific Command detected and tracked what we assess was a North Korean missile launch at 11:21 a.m. Hawaii time April 15. The launch of the ballistic missile occurred near Sinpo.
The missile blew up almost immediately. The type of missile is still being assessed.
U.S. Pacific Command is fully committed to working closely with our allies in the Republic of Korea and in Japan to maintain security.
Additionally, Secretary of Defense Mattis says President Trump is aware of the situation and has “no further comment” on failed North Korean missile test.
The big question is whether Trump will retaliate while VP Pence is in South Korea.
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As we detailed earlier, after Saturday came and went without any provocation out of North Korea on its national holiday, many asked if Kim Jong-Un had finally learned his lesson.Well, according to South Korean news agency, not only did Kim not learn any lesson – or heed Trump’s warning that a nuclear test or missile launch would be grounds for a US military strike – but Kim was not even successful in properly defying the US as according to the Joint Chiefs of the South Korean army, North Korea fired an unidentified missile but the test failed. The incident occurred a day after Kim Jong Un oversaw an elaborate military parade in the center of Pyongyang as the world watched for any provocations that risk sparking a conflict with the U.S.
According to a US official quoted by CBS, the launched missile was not an intercontinental ballistic missile, which North Korea has claimed to possess but has never successfully tested. It’s unclear why the missile failed.
The missile “blew up almost immediately” on its test launch on Sunday, the U.S. Pacific Command said, hours before U.S. Vice President Mike Pence was due in the South for talks on the North’s increasingly defiant arms program.
As Yonhap further reports, North Korea’s attempted missile launch on Sunday ended in failure, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said.
“The North attempted to launch an unidentified missile from near the Sinpo region this morning but it is suspected to have failed,” the South’s Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement
The missile launch attempt came amid rising tensions with the United States that is sending an aircraft-carrier strike group to waters off the Korean Peninsula to deter potential North Korean provocations such as a nuclear test.
As VoA reports, there is still no information on the type of missile the DPRK tried to launch from Sinpo, where North Korea has a submarine base. What we do know, however, is that the time of the missile launch was at 06:20 am Korean time, and as Reuters also adds, the missile launched earlier this month flew about 60 km (40 miles) but what U.S. officials said appeared to be a liquid-fueled, extended-range Scud missile only traveled a fraction of its range before spinning out of control.
“It appears today’s launch was already scheduled for re-launching after the earlier test-firing” Kim Dong-yub, a military expert at Kyungnam University’s Institute of Far Eastern Studies in Seoul.
“This launch can possibly be a test for a new type of missile or an upgrade,” Kim added. The North has said it has developed and would launch a missile that can strike the mainland United States but officials and experts believe it is some time away from mastering all the necessary technology.
Tension had escalated sharply in the region amid concerns that the North may conduct a sixth nuclear test or a ballistic missile test launch around the April 15 anniversary it calls the “Day of the Sun.”
That said, in light of the recent NYT report that the US has been able to sabotage and remotely control North Korean launches for years courtesy of cyberattacks, one does wonder if the US did not play at least a minor role in this attempted, but failed, launch.
Three years ago, President Barack Obama ordered Pentagon officials to step up their cyber and electronic strikes against North Korea’s missile program in hopes of sabotaging test launches in their opening seconds.
Soon a large number of the North’s military rockets began to explode, veer off course, disintegrate in midair and plunge into the sea. Advocates of such efforts say they believe that targeted attacks have given American antimissile defenses a new edge and delayed by several years the day when North Korea will be able to threaten American cities with nuclear weapons launched atop intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Sabotage or not, at this moment Vice President Mike Pence is en route to South Korea on Saturday night for meetings with officials amid increased tensions in the region over Pyongyang’s nuclear program and missile tests.
As we await more information, the immediate question is whether the mere intent to test the US’ resolve, even if such an attempt was ultimately a failure will be sufficient for the US to commence bombing Pyongyang. Recall that two days ago, NBC reported that the US is prepared to launch preemptive strikes on North Korea in case Kim Jong-Un was planning on conducting a nuclear test. One can probably extrapolate the same logic to ballistic misisle launches, especially now that North Korea revealed a new, far bigger ICBM during the Saturday parade.
We expect the answer whether the US will strike North Korea to be revealed within the next few hours.
Meanwhile, courtesy of Stratfor, here are four possible scenarios on what happens next:
A Red Line at the 38th Parallel
A Range of Options
Action against North Korea could take many shapes or forms, from a limited strike to a large-scale military offensive targeting all of North Korea’s military assets. On the lowest end of the scale, the United States could launch a strike to punish North Korea for continuing to develop its nuclear and missile arsenal and to deter it from pursuing nuclear weapons in the future. A punitive strike may be limited to a single base or facility in the country, with the threat of further action down the line if Pyongyang doesn’t alter its behavior. Though this kind of attack offers the best way to keep the situation from escalating, it would by no means ensure that North Korea heeds the United States’ warning and eases up on its nuclear and missile development. Nor does it eliminate the risk that Pyongyang may respond to the strike in kind.
Alternatively, the United States could elect to launch a more comprehensive punitive or preventive strike in an attempt to physically interrupt the nuclear and missile programs’ maturation. The strikes would still be limited, focusing only on nuclear and missile infrastructure to signal that the United States is not trying to orchestrate a change in the country’s leadership. This kind of operation, such as a strike on a single target, would encourage North Korea to curb its response so as not to provoke further attacks — though a full-scale retaliation could not be ruled out.
If Washington judges that Pyongyang is likely to launch a counterattack regardless, it may decide a comprehensive campaign to degrade or eliminate North Korea’s retaliatory capacity would be most prudent. This scenario would best position the United States and its allies against a North Korean response, but it would entail significant risks, virtually guaranteeing full-blown war on the Korean Peninsula. Consequently, a campaign of this magnitude would require buy-in from regional actors — something that has yet to manifest — and a buildup of military assets far greater than what the United States has deployed in the region so far. A more limited strike, be it a focused punitive strike or a larger one targeting nuclear and missile infrastructure, is more likely at this point. In the meantime, the Pentagon has rerouted several carrier strike groups to the waters surrounding the Korean Peninsula.
Weighing the Risks
Such an operation could involve cruise missiles as well as fixed-wing aircraft conducting strikes against various facilities across North Korea. Prime targets include the nuclear reactor or uranium enrichment facility at Yongbyon, as well as North Korean nuclear scientists. Should the United States plan more extensive strikes aimed at disabling all elements of the North Korean nuclear program, it may also deploy special operations forces to go after underground facilities that airstrikes couldn’t easily or reliably destroy. But the broader the target set, the greater the risk of retaliation. North Korea has a hefty arsenal of short- and medium-range missiles that it could launch at nearby targets, including U.S. military facilities elsewhere in the region. Pyongyang’s conventional artillery, moreover, could also do significant damage to northern areas of South Korea, reaching as far as the country’s capital. U.S. military planners would likely view this kind of escalation as an unacceptable risk.
The United States will base its decision about whether and how to strike North Korea in large part on the kind of reaction it anticipates from Pyongyang. North Korea has many reasons to mount a credible retaliation to any action taken against it, not only to maintain the appearance of a powerful actor on the global stage but also to ensure domestic stability. A weak response from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s administration could undermine its legitimacy among the country’s public or perhaps prompt a palace coup. At the same time, however, Pyongyang understands that a significant retaliation would meet with a commensurate response, which could cripple North Korea’s military capabilities.
If the United States determines the country is unlikely to take that kind of chance, it will have little else standing in the way of a military strike. Short of that scenario, however, Washington may still be willing to assume the risks of a limited retaliation. The United States could consider the launch of a small number of missiles that might be intercepted, for example, or incursions by North Korean special operations forces into South Korean territory to be acceptable consequences. Even low-level naval skirmishes may not be considered too great a repercussion. Still, anticipating the scale of North Korea’s response is a daunting and treacherous gamble.
Then there’s China’s response to consider. Until now, Beijing has stressed diplomatic solutions to ease the rising tension, all the while warning against the chain reaction that military action against Pyongyang could set off. Beijing has consistently made clear that its red line on the issue is war or instability on the Korean Peninsula; China wants to make sure that it has a pliable buffer state along its northeastern border.
In the event of a military strike against North Korea, China could intervene, either to support the North Korean government or to facilitate a power transition without jeopardizing order in the country. Its options for intervention range from military backing for Pyongyang to support for a U.S.-led military campaign to a decapitation strike. But whatever path it chooses, it will stay focused on ensuring the North Korean state’s continuity and preventing any scenario that could lead the Korean Peninsula to unify under a competing power.
The United States would doubtless risk a response in kind from China should it launch a military strike without consulting Beijing. And if Washington were to launch a full-scale campaign against North Korea, or if a limited attack spirals into a war, the likelihood of a Chinese military intervention to secure its interests on the Korean Peninsula will climb. Along with its desire to keep a buffer between its territory and U.S. forces in South Korea, China is worried about the threat of spillover from a potential conflict in North Korea.
What to Watch Out For
The window has not closed on a diplomatic solution to the problem. Pyongyang may decide to postpone its nuclear test, and the United States, in turn, could delay military action in favor of tougher sanctions. Still, given the high stakes at play, Stratfor will be watching closely for early warnings of impending military action.
Defensive Preparations Near the North-South Border
South Korea is always on alert during its northern neighbor’s test cycles. And because it is a prime target for North Korea’s prospective retaliatory action, the country is anxious about the possibility of a military strike — all the more so as it deals with prolonged political instability at home. South Korea’s acting president has ordered his military to intensify preparations. But reports have yet to surface that the country is bolstering security at the border.
A Shutdown at China’s Border
Overall, we are on the lookout for any sign that China is changing its military posture or taking steps to evacuate foreigners from North Korea. Reports suggest that China is mobilizing troops along the border, though we have not been able to verify these claims. Nonetheless, Air China — one of two airlines with service to North Korea — has announced that it is canceling flights to the country starting April 17. As one of the only countries that operate flights to North Korea, China may be trying to prove that it is willing to ramp up its economic pressure on Pyongyang. Otherwise, it may have canceled the flights simply because of low passenger turnout. The move could also be a precautionary measure, though, and we’re watching to see whether it indicates that China is preparing for a military crisis.
Changes in Travel Plans or Diplomatic Activity
Changes to the itinerary of U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s impending 10-day tour of the Asia-Pacific region would be a red flag. He is expected to celebrate Easter with U.S. forces in South Korea. A sudden uptick in diplomatic activity between the United States and China, likewise, could signal imminent action in North Korea.