North Korea conducted a missile test on April 28, 2017 that didn’t go quite as planned. In fact, we’re now learning that the Hwasong-12 missile that the country launched actually went astray and may have hit the North Korean city of Tokchon.
The Diplomat reports that a US government source with knowledge of the launch says the missile failed after just a single minute of airtime. It’s believed that the test missile hit some agricultural or industrial buildings and it’s not clear if there were any casualties associated with the mishap. The structural damage was independently confirmed by The Diplomat using publicly available satellite photos.
As The Diplomat notes, this particular missile launch didn’t get much attention in the US press at the time because all we really knew about it was the fact that it failed. The revelation that the missile hit an unintended target raises new questions about the possibility that North Korea could accidentally start a nuclear war if an errant missile were to hit a country like Japan or South Korea.
Liquid fuel missiles like the one that failed in April 2017 can cause large explosions, even without a warhead, when the hypergolic propellant and oxidizer mix on impact. But the true damage done to buildings is a guess at best given available satellite data.
The month of April 2017, the time of the failed missile test, was an already incredibly tense period for US-North Korea relations. President Trump said that he was “sending an armada” to the region, which turned out to be a lie. And while North Korea hadn’t successfully demonstrated an ICBM yet (that would happen later that summer with the Hwasong-14) there was a lot of heated rhetoric on both sides.
The US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley even explained in April that the US would conduct a military strike against North Korea if it tested an ICBM. Haley said, “if you see [Kim Jong-un] attack a military base, if you see some sort of intercontinental ballistic missile, then obviously we’re going to do that.”
That turned out to be an empty threat as well. North Korea launched its first ICBM back in July and the US did nothing but impose more sanctions. But the outlandish rhetoric continues on both sides, as President Trump and Kim Jong Un most recently compared the size of the buttons on their desks.
Experts warn that North Korea’s success with missile tests over the past two years is due largely to Kim Jong Un’s uncharacteristically cool acceptance of failure. Dictators get upset when things are done exactly as they like, but Kim understands that you’re going to have some duds when you’re working with rocket science. And that’s what makes the situation even more terrifying.
Experts on nuclear weapons continue to warn that this isn’t a game and that we’re facing some very real dangers in the months ahead. With any luck, both President Trump and Kim Jong-un will cool down their war of words and not start World War III, accidentally or otherwise. Do you feel lucky?