SEOUL • North Korea failed in its effort to launch what experts believe was an intermediate-range ballistic missile yesterday, in defiance of UN sanctions and in an embarrassing setback for leader Kim Jong Un, drawing criticism from China.
The failed launch, as the reclusive country celebrates the Day of the Sun on the birthday of Mr Kim's grandfather Kim Il Sung, follows the North's fourth nuclear test in January and a long-range rocket launch in February, which led to new international sanctions.
Still, the North has pushed ahead with its missile programme in breach of UN Security Council resolutions. China, North Korea's most important economic and diplomatic backer, has been angered by Pyongyang's nuclear tests and rocket launches in the face of UN sanctions that Beijing also backed.
"We hope all parties can strictly respect the decisions of the Security Council and avoid taking any steps that could further worsen tensions," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang.
Chinese state media was more direct. "The firing of a mid-range ballistic missile... by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, though failed, marks the latest in a string of sabre-rattling that, if unchecked, will lead the country to nowhere," Xinhua news agency said in an English-language commentary, using the official name of North Korea.
Yesterday was the birth anniversary of North Korea's founding president Kim Il Sung.
In 2012, the event was marked by a long-range rocket launch attempt which also failed.
The US Defence Department said yesterday's launch was detected and tracked by the US Strategic Command which also assessed it had failed.
The missile was likely a Musudan, South Korea's Yonhap news agency said, an intermediate-range ballistic missile with a design range of more than 3,000km that can be fired from a road mobile launcher.
North Korea has tested many of its short-range Scud and medium- range Rodong missiles, but never flight-tested the Musudan, unveiled for the first time in 2010 during a military parade in Pyongyang.
South Korean defence officials said Pyongyang had had its Musudan system tested in Iran. Washington and its allies have long said that North Korea and Iran have had close cooperation in missile development.
The United States, which has 28,000 troops stationed in South Korea, on Thursday said it was aware of reports that North Korea was preparing to test intermediate-range missiles and was closely monitoring the Korean peninsula.
The US-based 38 North website, which specialises in North Korea, said there has been activity at the country's nuclear site based on satellite imagery and on Wednesday said the possibility of a fifth nuclear test "could not be ruled out".
The North is scheduled to hold its ruling party congress in early May, the first such meeting in 36 years.
Pyongyang has hailed a series of achievements in recent months, including miniaturising a nuclear warhead to fit on a missile, developing a warhead that can withstand atmospheric re-entry, and building a solid-fuel missile engine.
Last week, it said it had successfully tested an engine designed for an inter-continental ballistic missile that would "guarantee" an eventual nuclear strike on the US mainland.
Outside experts have treated a number of the claims with scepticism, while acknowledging that the North's nuclear and ballistic missile programmes have made significant strides.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS, NEW YORK TIMES