By Roberta Rampton and Sue-Lin Wong | SEOUL/PYONGYANG — A North Korean missile “blew up almost immediately” on its test launch on Sunday, the U.S. Pacific Command said, hours before U.S. Vice President Mike Pence landed in South Korea for talks on the North’s increasingly defiant arms program.
The failed launch from North Korea’s east coast, ignoring repeated admonitions from major ally China, came a day after North Korea held a grand military parade in its capital, marking the birth anniversary of the state founder, displaying what appeared to be new long-range ballistic missiles.
U.S. President Donald Trump acknowledged China’s help with the North Korean issue on Sunday, linking it to a softer line taken on China’s management of its currency.
“Why would I call China a currency manipulator when they are working with us on the North Korean problem? We will see what happens!” Trump said on Twitter. Trump has backed away from a campaign promise to label China in that way.
China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson exchanged views on the “situation on the Korean peninsula” by phone on Sunday, China’s official Xinhua News Agency said. Yang said the two sides should maintain dialogue.
South Korea said the North’s latest show of force “threatened the whole world” but a U.S. foreign policy adviser traveling with Pence on Air Force Two sought to defuse some of the tension, saying the test of what was believed to be a medium-range missile had come as no surprise.
“We had good intelligence before the launch and good intelligence after the launch,” the adviser told reporters on condition of anonymity.
“It’s a failed test. It follows another failed test. So really no need to reinforce their failure. We don’t need to expend any resources against that.”The adviser said the missile’s flight lasted four or five seconds.
“It wasn’t a matter of if, it was a matter of when. The good news is that after five seconds it fizzled out.”Pence, addressing an Easter service with American troops in South Korea, said the U.S. commitment to South Korea was unwavering.
“Let me assure you under President Trump’s leadership, our resolve has never been stronger. Our commitment to this historic alliance with the courageous people of South Korea has never been stronger.”
Pence was beginning a 10-day trip to Asia in what his aides said was a sign of U.S. commitment to its ally in the face of rising tension.
The U.S. nuclear-powered Carl Vinson aircraft carrier strike group is also heading to the region. (tmsnrt.rs/2p1yGTQ)
A U.S. Navy attack on a Syrian airfield this month raised questions about Trump’s plans for reclusive North Korea, which has conducted several missile and nuclear tests in defiance of U.N. sanctions, regularly threatening to destroy the South and the United States.
The White House has said Trump has put the North “on notice”.
South Korea, which hosts 28,500 U.S. troops and holds a presidential election on May 9, warned of punitive action if the Sunday launch led to further provocation.
“North Korea showing a variety of offensive missiles at yesterday’s military parade and daring to fire a ballistic missile today is a show of force that threatens the whole world,” South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Impoverished North Korea and the rich, democratic South are technically still at war because their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.
The North has warned of a nuclear strike against the United States if provoked. It has said it has developed and would launch a missile that can strike the mainland United States but officials and experts believe it is some time away from mastering the necessary technology, including miniaturizing a nuclear warhead.
The North launched a ballistic missile from the same region this month, ahead of a summit between the United States and China in Florida to discuss the North’s arms program.
But that missile, which U.S. officials said appeared to be a liquid-fuelled, extended-range Scud, only flew about 60 km (40 miles), a fraction of its range before spinning out of control.
Tension had escalated sharply amid concern the North may conduct a sixth nuclear test or a ballistic missile test around Saturday’s 105th anniversary of the birth of founding father Kim Il Sung, what it calls the “Day of the Sun”.
China, which Trump has urged to do more to rein in North Korea, has spoken out against its weapons tests and has supported U.N. sanctions. It has repeatedly called for talks while appearing increasingly frustrated with the North.
China banned imports of North Korean coal on Feb. 26, cutting off its most important export. China’s customs department issued an order on April 7 telling traders to return North Korean coal cargoes, said trading sources with knowledge of the order.
In Pyongyang, there was a festive atmosphere at a flower show, with families out, taking pictures with North Korean-made smart phones. There was no mention of the test failure by the KCNA state news agency.
Company worker Rim Chung Ryol, 30, said he had not heard of the test.
“If it is a failure, then failure is the mother of success,” he told Reuters.
Factory worker Ri Gul Chol, 37, also had not heard about the missile test.
“But whatever Kim Jong Un decides and instructs will succeed and all the citizens will support him,” he said, referring to the North’s young leader.