In the run-up to the weekend there was lots of speculation that North Korea was going to carry out its sixth nuclear weapons test. On Saturday, the totalitarian regime showed off what looked like new missiles that could at least theoretically reach the United States and warned that it was ready to “hit back with nuclear attacks of our own.” But when Pyongyang tried to show off its capabilities by firing up a medium-range missile on Sunday it was an embarrassing failure as it exploded mere seconds after it launched. Although some warned it was a sign that North Korea continues to push forward in its weapons program, it was also a reminder of how bluster from Pyongyang should always be taken with a grain of salt.
U.S. officials immediately tried to dismiss the importance of the launch, with a White House foreign policy adviser who was traveling with Vice President Mike Pence to the region saying Washington had good intelligence before and after the launch. “It’s a failed test. It follows another failed test,” the adviser said. “So really no need to reinforce their failure. We don’t need to expend any resources against that.” Of the five missile tests that North Korea has carried out this year, three were considered failures.
In an uncharacteristic move, President Donald Trump has remained silent on the failed launch. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis issued an unusual statement saying Trump and his team “are aware of North Korea’s most recent unsuccessful missile launch. The president has no further comment.” Arriving in South Korea Sunday afternoon, Pence had a bit more to say on the issue, telling U.S. troops the failed missile launch was a “provocation” that served as another reminder of the dangers in the region.
In North Korea, the official news agency was quiet on the failed test and even government minders who were taking foreign journalists around Pyongyang claimed not to know that it had happened.
Last month, the New York Times reported that the United States has been carrying out a years-long secret cyber warfare campaign against North Korea’s nuclear and missile program to sabotage test launches. Although it’s unclear how successful the program has been, the failure rate of the launches has been high since it was put in place.