According to a newly publicized open-source report, one of North Korea’s missile tests in April of 2017 experienced a massive failure in flight. This missile, a Hwasong-12 / KN17 intermediate-range ballistic missile, or IRBM, started its flight from Pukchang Airfield in the South Pyongan Province.
But after about one minute of powered flight, the engine failed and the missile crashed in the North Korean city of Tokchon, causing considerable damage to a complex of industrial or agricultural buildings, according to this report from the Diplomat.
The missile is believed to not have exceeded 70 kilometers in altitude, but this is enough that an impact would be very damaging indeed.
The missile did not explode in flight, which gives reason to believe that the unspent fuel it was carrying exploded on impact.
This was the third test of this missile system that the North Koreans had attempted. The Hwasong-12 has become the basis for the the Hwasong 14, which is an ICBM, or intercontinental (long range) ballistic missile, which was revealed later in 2017.
The North Koreans did not immediately make this information public, but they did so later, after a successful test of the Hwasong-14. At that point, concert celebrating this successful launch was broadcast, including a slideshow was released showing Kim Jong-un inspecting all three of the failed Hwasong-12 launches, including the April 28th one. Certainly this compilation is intended to tell a victorious story, that came through some hardship and failure.
An alarming thought about all this is that the North Korean systems still have a massive failure record. The pattern of this nation’s behavior with these rockets is to launch them into the Sea of Japan, or in such a trajectory that the missile flies over the Japanese archipelago.
But if a missile experienced failure, with or without a warhead, a crash in a populated area could trigger a military response.
This is possible with a dummy warhead, but North Korea has also threatened to conduct a hydrogen bomb test in the Pacific. If this bomb was flying on a missile that experienced failure, regardless of where that missile came down, there would be massive problems. If the warhead came down on one of North Korea’s own cities, this could be equally dangerous.
Although later tests started from a different location, the hazardous behavior of the North Korean military is provocative and dangerous, especially given the bellicose language out of Pyongyang. Kim Jong-un is not making allies in this manner, for sure.