A North Korean missile launch reportedly failed and blasted one of its own cities

  • A failed North Korean missile test reportedly struck a populated city and may have detonated its unburnt fuel.
  • Photos from around the time of the launch show a building in the city of Tokchon having sustained damage.
  • The missile that failed is the same that flew over Japan twice, highlighting the danger of the seldom-tested rockets.

North Korea reportedly launched a Hwasong 12 intermediate-range ballistic missile in April 2017 that failed a few seconds into flight and came crashing down on one of its own cities.

The Diplomat's Ankit Panda and David Schmerler, of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, cited a US government source as saying the missile failed a minute into flight and never went higher than 70 kilometers.

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Every missile launch conducted by North Korea in 2017
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Every missile launch conducted by North Korea in 2017
This photo taken on February 12, 2017 and released on February 13 by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) shows the launch of a surface-to-surface medium long-range ballistic missile Pukguksong-2 at an undisclosed location. North Korea said on February 13 it had successfully tested a new ballistic missile, triggering a US-led call for an urgent UN Security Council meeting after a launch seen as a challenge to President Donald Trump. / AFP PHOTO / KCNA via KNS / STR / South Korea OUT / REPUBLIC OF KOREA OUT ---EDITORS NOTE--- RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT 'AFP PHOTO/KCNA VIA KNS' - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS / THIS PICTURE WAS MADE AVAILABLE BY A THIRD PARTY. AFP CAN NOT INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, LOCATION, DATE AND CONTENT OF THIS IMAGE. THIS PHOTO IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY AFP. / (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - This undated picture released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) via KNS on March 7, 2017 shows the launch of four ballistic missiles by the Korean People's Army (KPA) during a military drill at an undisclosed location in North Korea. Nuclear-armed North Korea launched four ballistic missiles on March 6 in another challenge to President Donald Trump, with three landing provocatively close to America's ally Japan. / AFP PHOTO / KCNA VIA KNS / STR / South Korea OUT / REPUBLIC OF KOREA OUT ---EDITORS NOTE--- RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT 'AFP PHOTO/KCNA VIA KNS' - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS THIS PICTURE WAS MADE AVAILABLE BY A THIRD PARTY. AFP CAN NOT INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, LOCATION, DATE AND CONTENT OF THIS IMAGE. THIS PHOTO IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY AFP. / (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - A man walks past a television screen showing file footage of a North Korean missile launch, at a railway station in Seoul on March 22, 2017. A new North Korean missile test failed on March 22, the South and US said, two weeks after Pyongyang launched four rockets in what it called a drill for an attack on American bases in Japan. / AFP PHOTO / JUNG Yeon-Je (Photo credit should read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)
A man walks past a television screen showing file footage of a North Korean missile launch, at a railway station in Seoul on April 5, 2017. Nuclear-armed North Korea fired a ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan on April 5, just ahead of a highly-anticipated China-US summit at which Pyongyangs accelerating atomic weapons programme is set to top the agenda. / AFP PHOTO / JUNG Yeon-Je (Photo credit should read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)
A North Korean navy truck carries the 'Pukkuksong' submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father, Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, April 15, 2017. North Korea has escalated tests of its SLBM programme in the last year. Whilst the isolated country is not yet believed to have an operational submarine capable of carrying more than one missile at the time, its enemies are worried that a fully-functional SLBM would make tracking and intercepting a North Korean missile launch and the submarine from which it was fired very difficult. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY SEARCH "PARADE WID" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
This picture taken on May 14, 2017 and released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on May 15 shows a test launch of the ground-to-ground medium long-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 at an undisclosed location. / AFP PHOTO / KCNA VIA KNS / STR / South Korea OUT / REPUBLIC OF KOREA OUT ---EDITORS NOTE--- RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT 'AFP PHOTO/KCNA VIA KNS' - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS THIS PICTURE WAS MADE AVAILABLE BY A THIRD PARTY. AFP CAN NOT INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, LOCATION, DATE AND CONTENT OF THIS IMAGE. THIS PHOTO IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY AFP. / (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
FILE PHOTO - The scene of the intermediate-range ballistic missile Pukguksong-2's launch test in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) May 22, 2017. KCNA/via REUTERS/File photo ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT.
People watch a television broadcasting a news report on North Korea firing what appeared to be a short-range ballistic missile, at a railway station in Seoul, South Korea, May 29, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - JUNE 08: People watch a television broadcast reporting the North Korean missile launch at the Seoul Railway Station on June 8, 2017 in Seoul, South Korea. According to the South Korean military, North Korea launched several cruise missiles from the east coast toward the ocean on June 8, 2017 in its fourth missile test in four weeks. The launch came amid the international tension surrounding the policy on North Korea, as a day before the newly elected South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, announced the suspension of the deployment of an controversial American missile defence system, and less than a week before the United Nations Security Council expanded the sanctions against North Korea. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
This picture taken and released on July 4, 2017 by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) shows the test-fire of the intercontinental ballistic missile Hwasong-14 at an undisclosed location. North Korea declared on July 4 it had successfully tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile -- a watershed moment in its push to develop a nuclear weapon capable of hitting the mainland United States. / AFP PHOTO / KCNA VIA KNS / STR / South Korea OUT / REPUBLIC OF KOREA OUT ---EDITORS NOTE--- RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT 'AFP PHOTO/KCNA VIA KNS' - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS THIS PICTURE WAS MADE AVAILABLE BY A THIRD PARTY. AFP CAN NOT INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, LOCATION, DATE AND CONTENT OF THIS IMAGE. THIS PHOTO IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY AFP. / (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
A photo taken on July 6, 2017 shows a mass dance event as part of celebrations marking the July 4 launch of the Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile, in Pyongyang. Fireworks lit up the sky over Pyongyang's Juche Tower as North Korea celebrated its launch of intercontinental ballistic missile, a milestone in its decades-long weapons drive. On July 4 -- the United States' Independence Day -- it launched a Hwasong-14 rocket that analysts and overseas officials said had a range of up to 8,000 kilometres, which would put Alaska and Hawaii within reach. / AFP PHOTO / KIM Won-Jin (Photo credit should read KIM WON-JIN/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - This July 28, 2017 picture released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on July 29, 2017 shows North Korea's intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), Hwasong-14 being lauched at an undisclosed place in North Korea. Kim Jong-Un boasted of North Korea's ability to strike any target in the US after a second ICBM test that weapons experts said could even bring New York into range - in a potent challenge to US President Donald Trump. / AFP PHOTO / KCNA VIS KNS / STR / South Korea OUT / REPUBLIC OF KOREA OUT ---EDITORS NOTE--- RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT 'AFP PHOTO/KCNA VIA KNS' - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS THIS PICTURE WAS MADE AVAILABLE BY A THIRD PARTY. AFP CAN NOT INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, LOCATION, DATE AND CONTENT OF THIS IMAGE. THIS PHOTO IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY AFP. TO GO WITH NKorea-nucelar-missile-Japan-SKorea-politics, FOCUS by Shingo Ito and Park Chan-Kyong / (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - AUGUST 26: People watch a television broadcast reporting the North Korean missile launch at the Seoul Railway Station on August 26, 2017 in Seoul, South Korea. North Korea launched several ballistic missiles into the East Sea resuming a provocative act in a month despite Washington's diplomacy-first approach toward the belligerent regime. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - This picture from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) taken on August 29, 2017 and released on August 30, 2017 shows North Korea's intermediate-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 lifting off from the launching pad at an undisclosed location near Pyongyang. Nuclear-armed North Korea said on August 30 that it had fired a missile over Japan the previous day, the first time it has ever acknowledged doing so. / AFP PHOTO / KCNA VIA KNS / STR / South Korea OUT / REPUBLIC OF KOREA OUT ---EDITORS NOTE--- RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT 'AFP PHOTO/KCNA VIA KNS' - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS THIS PICTURE WAS MADE AVAILABLE BY A THIRD PARTY. AFP CAN NOT INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, LOCATION, DATE AND CONTENT OF THIS IMAGE. THIS PHOTO IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY AFP. / The erroneous mention[s] appearing in the metadata of this photo by STR has been modified in AFP systems in the following manner: [at an undisclosed location near Pyongyang] instead of [in Pyongyang]. Please immediately remove the erroneous mention[s] from all your online services and delete it (them) from your servers. If you have been authorized by AFP to distribute it (them) to third parties, please ensure that the same actions are carried out by them. Failure to promptly comply with these instructions will entail liability on your part for any continued or post notification usage. Therefore we thank you very much for all your attention and prompt action. We are sorry for the inconvenience this notification may cause and remain at your disposal for any further information you may require. (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - SEPTEMBER 15: People watch a television broadcast reporting the North Korean missile launch at the Seoul Railway Station on September 15, 2017 in Seoul, South Korea. North Korea launched a ballistic missile over Japan just days after the U.N. Security Council adopted new sanctions against the regime over its sixth nuclear test on Sept. 3. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
People watch a television screen showing a file video footage of North Korea's missile launch, at a railway station in Seoul on November 29, 2017. North Korea test fired what appeared to be an intercontinental ballistic missile on November 29, in a major challenge to US President Donald Trump after he slapped fresh sanctions on Pyongyang and declared it a state sponsor of terrorism. / AFP PHOTO / JUNG Yeon-Je (Photo credit should read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)
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That initial minute of boosted flight propelled the missile 39 kilometers into Tokchon, a town of about 200,000 people in North Korea's interior, according to Panda and Schmerler's investigation.

Satellite imagery scanned by the authors shows damage to industrial or agricultural buildings nearby a residential area. The Hwasong-12, with unburned liquid fuel, could still cause a massive explosion even without any kind of warhead at all, though the authors conclude there were likely few casualties.

The wider threat of failed missile tests

But the fiery crash of a North Korean missile into a populated town demonstrates not only the threat Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions pose to its own people, but to the world.

North Korea has twice fired the Hwasong-12 over Japan. A similar failure in the launch process could potentially see a large liquid-fueled missile crashing down on a populated Japanese town.

Furthermore, the failure of the missile may not be apparent to Japanese radars, which might interpret the incoming body as a deliberate attack.

Another danger pointed out by the Diplomat comes from North Korea's newly demonstrated ability to launch missiles from nearly any point of its choosing.

Using mobile missile launchers, that sometimes even have treads like a tank, North Korea showed in 2017 it can launch from virtually anywhere within its borders.

The unpredictability and mobility of North Korea's launches mean that the US or its allies would have a hard time preempting such a launch, or even knowing where to look for one.

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