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North Korea's latest missile launch failed. How often does that happen?

The results of North Korea's missile tests have been mixed. According to a recent investigation, the United States is partially responsible for the comparatively high failure rate.

A man walks past a TV screen broadcasting a news report on North Korea firing a ballistic missile into the sea off its east coast, at a railway station in Seoul, South Korea, Feb. 12, 2017.
Kim Hong-JI/Reuters
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An attempted North Korean missile launch failed on Wednesday, according to US and South Korean reports.

The missile, launched from the eastern coastal town of Wonsan, “[appeared] to have exploded within seconds of launch,” the US Pacific Command said in a statement. American officials had been aware of the planned launch for several days, as they observed a rocket being moved and VIP seating being assembled in Wonsan, they told the Associated Press on Tuesday. The launch failure comes as the United States and South Korea engage in their annual “Foal Eagle” joint military exercises, which typically provoke a strong response from the North.

"The North Koreans respond to [the drills] almost every year with some kind of outlash or provocation or something like that," Robert Kelly, associate professor of political science at Pusan National University in South Korea, told CNN. "Missile tests are a nice way to send a signal."

As North Korea accelerates its missile program, success has been mixed with failure. But these failures may not be entirely organic, an investigative report by The New York Times revealed earlier this month. Instead, a new US antimissile approach appears to have been affecting the tests.

“Just about every time the North Koreans tried to launch an advanced missile, it seemed to end up in the ocean seconds later,” wrote David E. Sanger for The New York Times. “Maybe it was bad luck ... or bad parts, or bad welding. After all, the North Koreans are not known for quality control. Or maybe something else was going on.”

That “something else,” it turned out, was a new US approach to antimissile defense. In 2014, former President Barack Obama concluded that traditional antimissile systems, which failed more often than they succeeded under test conditions, were not the answer to protecting the US. To replace these systems, the US instituted a “left of launch” program that aims to sabotage the missiles before they ever leave the ground.

That program likely contributed to the failure of a series of launches over the past year. Over the course of one week last October, two missiles failed to launch successfully. In May, a Musudan missile exploded within seconds of launch, and a similar situation occurred in April.

But North Korea has also celebrated successes in the program, which it sees as the key to maintaining its autonomy and influence against China, the US, and other powers. Of a pair of missiles launched in June, one flew 93 miles and the other 250 miles. Earlier this month, though one missile failed to launch, the other four landed in Japanese waters.

These successes are an increasing concern for the US and its allies. Mr. Obama, upon leaving office, warned President Trump that North Korean missile development would be the most urgent problem facing his administration. After the test earlier this month, Japanese authorities in the northwestern city of Ogo ordered residents to participate in a civilian evacuation drill, a first for the country. Increasing pressure from North Korea has also led Japan to consider how its constitutional commitment to pacifism meshes with its commitment to defending its citizens from a potential attack.

The US is committed to working with China, Japan, and South Korea to defuse tensions in the region, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson indicated on his visit to the region last week. Concrete steps have not yet been agreed upon, however. The US has expressed a preference for sanctions and a willingness to use military force, while China would prefer to open a multilateral dialogue with North Korea. 

This report contains material from the Associated Press.