Missile test flop for Pyongyang as Washington, Seoul hold nuclear talks

The US military says it has detected a failed North Korean missile launch attempt, with a rocket exploding within seconds of its launch.

Provocation prompts vow of 'strong punitive action' and sanctions

North Korea has launched a missile that exploded in mid-air, just as the nuclear envoys of South Korea and the United States met in Seoul to discuss how they should deal with the growing threat from the North.

Mr Joseph Yun and his South Korean counterpart Kim Hong Kyun condemned the provocation, vowing "strong punitive steps" to push the regime to abandon the development of nuclear weapons. They also agreed to ramp up sanctions and exert diplomatic pressure until Pyongyang changes course, said South Korea's Foreign Ministry.

Pyongyang's third round of missile tests this y ear came shortly after leader Kim Jong Un observed the ground jet test of a new high-thrust rocket engine. It was launched from the eastern city of Wonsan yesterday morning.

South Korea's Defence Ministry said the missile was not fired normally, while the US Pacific Command said it "appeared to have exploded within seconds of launch". Both sides are working on identifying the type of missile.

Experts said the missile test is a show of protest against the recent warnings issued against the North by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during his visit to South Korea, Japan and China, as the young administration of President Donald Trump adopts a harder approach towards the regime.

Mr Tillerson said in Seoul last Friday that the long-maintained US policy of "strategic patience" is over, and all options, including military action, are on the table.

Mr Trump himself voiced frustration, accusing North Korea of "behaving very badly" in a Twitter message last week. He said the North has been "playing" the US for years and China has "done little to help".

Dr Bong Young Shik of Yonsei University's Institute for North Korean Studies said Pyongyang was probably in "watching mode" last week during Mr Tillerson's visit and its priority was to prepare for Sunday's rocket engine test, which turned out to be successful.

Pyongyang hailed the test as a "great leap forward" in its rocket programme. Experts said this could mean North Korea is one step closer to developing an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking the US.

Yesterday's missile test was Pyongyang's "expression of defiance" against the Trump admin- istration's recent tough rhetoric, said Dr Bong.

He added that North Korea will continue to fire missiles "until the end of the world" as the regime believes that becoming a nuclear state is key to its survival.

To protect South Korea from North Korea's missile threats, the US is in the midst of deploying the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) anti-missile system in South Korea. But Beijing, which is opposed to Thaad, has stepped up economic retaliation against Seoul.

Mr Yun, who arrived in Seoul from Beijing, assured South Korea that Mr Tillerson had delivered a strong message to China that its Thaad retaliation is "uncalled for".

In a sign of US concern over South Korea's upcoming presidential election and how power may shift to the liberal opposition camp, which is against Thaad deployment, Mr Yun met two presidential hopefuls from the opposition, Mr An Hee Jung and Mr Yoo Seong Min, as well as diplomacy advisers of opposition front runner Moon Jae In.

South Korea's policy towards the North may change if the liberals, who champion reconciliation with North Korea, win the May 9 election, said Dr Bong. He noted that nothing concrete came out of Mr Tillerson's or Mr Yun's visit, as "it doesn't make sense to agree on anything with an interim government".

Experts said the missile test is a show of protest against the recent warnings issued against the North by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during his visit to South Korea, Japan and China, as the young administration of President Donald Trump adopts a harder approach towards the regime.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 23, 2017, with the headline 'Missile test flop for Pyongyang as Washington, Seoul hold nuclear talks'. Print Edition | Subscribe