A North Korean missile launched last year had reportedly crashed into a North Korean city minutes after it was fired, reportedly destroying a complex of agricultural or industrial buildings.
The Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) launched on April 28 last year and was thought to have disintegrated halfway through its flight. However, newest U.S. intelligence suggests that the missile had landed in Tokchon, a city about 90 miles north of the country’s capital, Pyongyang. Around 200,000 people are estimated to have lived in the area at the time of the missile launch, and no casualties have been confirmed so far, despite the destructive nature of the Hwasong missile.
According to a recent report from The Diplomat magazine, the IRBM was fired from Pukchang Airfield in South Pyongan Province, where the Korean People’s Army’s Air and Anti-Air Force Unit 447 are located. Citing a U.S. government source with knowledge of North Korea’s weapons programs, The Diplomat reported that the missile’s first stage engines failed after approximately one minute of powered flight, resulting in catastrophic failure. U.S. intelligence also suggested that the missile never actually flew higher than 70 kilometers, which is significantly lower than its maximum recorded flight altitude of around 650 kilometers. After the missile was launched from the Pukchang Airfield in North Korea, it flew approximately 24 miles to the northeast, the report stated.
As no official reports came from North Korea, it was widely assumed that the missile had simply disintegrated mid-flight, as they often do in similar launch tests. However, the location of the missile’s eventual impact was revealed exclusively to The Diplomat and was supported by commercially available satellite imagery from April and May 2017.
As the Hwasong-12 IRBM is a liquid-fuel missile, using a highly volatile combination of burning agents, it caused massive explosions, annihilating what is now believed to be either an industrial or an agricultural compound on the outskirts of Tokchon. Satellite images from Google Earth taken shortly after the April 28 missile test show the area where the compound stood now cleared out, as well as significant damage to a neighboring greenhouse caused by debris from an explosion.
Despite the very detailed information about the failed launch listed in the U.S. intelligence report, no deaths have yet been verified. The secretive nature of North Korea’s ruling regime and the isolation they have put around the country make it impossible to confirm whether or not the strike resulted in fatalities.
However, according to the report, when accounting for the time of day the test occurred and the location of the impact, it may be likely that few, if any, casualties resulted from the incident.
So far, no reports have identified the purpose of the buildings that are thought to have been damaged by the attacks, and it’s still unknown if there were people in them when the strike happened.
Continuing the extensive report on the topic, The Diplomat stated that had the Hwasong-12 missile completed its flight successfully, it most likely would have landed in the northern reaches of the Sea of Japan, just of the Russian coast. A very similar splashdown location was used for North Korea’s first successful Hwasong-12 test in May 2017, where an almost identical missile was launched from the Kusong, a city in central North Pyongan province, home to much of North Korea’s military industry.
This is not the first, and probably not the last failed missile launch
The Diplomat report provided a detailed analysis of the damage caused by the failed missile launch and repeatedly warned about the danger future missile test pose to the safety of the region.
The April 28 missile incident is far from the first failed missile launch North Korea has had, and it’s most likely that it won’t be the last one. Despite frequent launches and testing facilities working around the clock to, in Kim Jong Un’s words, “complete the North Korean nuclear plan,” future successes are not guaranteed.
Should a future North Korean missile fail at a wrong moment while it’s in its powered flight phase, its trajectory could change into what would most definitely be viewed as an outright attack. Since August 2017, North Korea has started launching both intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) over Japanese territory. Both times the regime had launched the Hwasong-12, the flight was successful with the reentry vehicles splashing down in the northern parts of the Pacific Ocean, just off the coast of Japan.
While The Diplomat’s report just comes to show how secretive the North Korean regime is, the implications the newly acquired intelligence has for the U.S. and its allies are much more distressing. The failed missile test from April 28 shows just how little the regime cares for the safety precautions that come with its launch practices. It also shows that the regime is ready to cover up significant damages to its infrastructure, as well as casualties that might have resulted from the attack.
However, the fact that North Korea is very good at hiding its missiles thanks to its vast network of underground tunnels and test facilities, should be the most disturbing of them all. According to The Diplomat, until recently, North Korea was thought to have only four operating test sites – Sinpo, Sohae, Wonsan, and Kittaeryong.
As North Korean ICBM and IRBM production grows, it will have a vast and diversified network of launch and test sites, making it increasingly difficult to launch a counter-attack.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has continually warned the public about North Korea and the danger Japan faces. Citing North Korea’s “unacceptable provocations,” he said his country is facing “the most perilous security situation” since World War Two.
“It is not an exaggeration to say that the security environment surrounding Japan is at its severest since World War Two,” he said. “By raising pressure on North Korea together with the international community, I intend to do my utmost to solve North Korea’s nuclear, missiles and abduction issues.”
With NBC citing top-ranking military officials telling that a ballistic missile launch was “possible, if not likely, in the coming days,” and Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N, saying the U.S. was hearing reports North Korea might be preparing to fire another missile, today’s report comes as a very bleak reminder that the worst is yet to come.