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North Korea Quiet on Missile Failure that Rained Debris Near Pyongyang

A visitor watches a TV screen showing a news program reporting about North Korea's missile with file footage at a train station in Seoul, South Korea, March 11, 2022

North Korea is remaining silent about a failed missile launch that resulted in a mid-air explosion that reportedly scattered debris near Pyongyang.

State media Thursday made no comment about the previous day’s incident. The North’s state-run outlets typically report on missile launches the morning after they occur but have a mixed record of disclosing missile failures.

The missile exploded in mid-air shortly after it was launched from North Korea’s main international airport, according to South Korea’s military.

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported the explosion happened at an altitude below 20 kilometers. It is not clear what caused the malfunction.

NK News, a Seoul-based outlet with sources in North Korea, said projectile debris fell in or near the North Korean capital, citing a photo and witnesses to the failed launch.

“A photo seen by NK News shows a red-tinted ball of smoke at the end of a zig-zagging rocket launch trail in the sky,” NK News reported.

It is not clear if the rocket fell in a populated area, but experts warned that there were dangers not only from falling debris but also from highly toxic rocket propellant.

This would not be the first time a malfunctioning North Korean missile struck one of the country’s populated areas. In 2018, a Hwasong-12 intermediate range missile failed shortly after launch and apparently landed on the city of Tokchon, according to analysts who viewed satellite imagery at the time.

People watch a TV showing a file image of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shown during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Jan. 20, 2022.
People watch a TV showing a file image of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shown during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Jan. 20, 2022.

Wednesday’s launch may have been particularly reckless, since it occurred at North Korea’s main international airport in the Pyongyang area, analysts and human rights activists said.

“This morning a huge rocket was launched from an airport and exploded in the skies over a capital city, debris falling from the sky, potentially onto houses and people, a catastrophe seen and heard by countless citizens,” tweeted Sokeel Park, a Seoul-based employee of the Liberty in North Korea nongovernmental organization.

“If it was London, Istanbul or Seoul imagine our newsfeeds -- filled with video, images and eyewitness accounts. But it was Pyongyang, so there isn’t a SINGLE public image or video. A complete visual blackout for a huge explosion in the sky above an Asian capital in 2022,” he added.

North Korea’s government is run by a third-generation hereditary dictator, Kim Jong Un, whose government does not allow freedom of speech or private media.

North Korea has used the airport, located on the outskirts of Pyongyang, for its previous three missile launches.

Jeffrey Lewis, an expert in nuclear nonproliferation with the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, has documented North Korea’s efforts to turn the airport into a facility to launch missiles.

“The idea of placing a dedicated facility to support developmental missile testing at North Korea’s major international airport is absolutely bonkers. But then again, North Korea is the only country I can think of that has conducted missile tests from its primary international airport,” wrote Lewis.

The U.S. military condemned the launch and called for North Korea to “refrain from further destabilizing acts.” The statement did not mention any missile failure.

U.S. officials have warned North Korea could soon test an intercontinental ballistic missile, possibly under the guise of a satellite launch. It’s not clear if the North’s failed missile launch involved ICBM technology.