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Politics

North Korea's chest-thumping seen continuing until May congress

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center.   © Kyodo

SEOUL -- North Korea demonstrated its bullheaded commitment to arms development Friday through what is thought to have been an attempted missile launch, and the country is not expected to ease up on such provocations before the Workers' Party congress in May.

     The failed launch occurred on the country's biggest holiday, the birthday of North Korea's late founder, Kim Il Sung. The Supreme People's Assembly hosted a party Thursday, and current leader Kim Jong Un on Friday visited the mausoleum where his grandfather rests, the state's Korean Central News Agency reported.

     Pyongyang tried to fire one missile around 5:30 a.m. local time from its eastern coast, according to South Korea's military. "It was judged to be a failure due to its irregular trajectory," a military source said.

     What exactly was launched has not been officially identified, but it is believed to be the Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missile. It would be the North's first attempt at firing a Musudan. Pyongyang did not warn international organizations in advance to set up a no-fly zone.

     North Korea looks to divide the international community by maintaining a hard line despite economic sanctions, a spokesperson for the South's Ministry of Unification told reporters Friday.

     Pyongyang has launched what were suspected to be intercontinental ballistic missiles before. But because the country had claimed to be launching satellites, it never attempted their re-entry into the atmosphere. Seoul thinks the North's missiles have enough thrust to travel about 13,000km, putting the continental U.S. within reach, but that Pyongyang lacks the technology to protect warheads from the heat when they re-enter the atmosphere.

     The Nodong is the North Korean missile with the farthest range -- roughly 1,300km -- that has undergone a re-entry test. A successful launch of the Musudan, which has a range of over 3,000km, would show advancement in the country's technology. It would even threaten U.S. bases in Guam, which house B-52 bombers likely to be deployed during an emergency on the Korean Peninsula.

     Musudan's mobile firing system also makes it difficult to pinpoint a launch site. This poses challenges for detecting signs of a possible launch and tracking the missiles' trajectory. North Korea also is developing submarine-launched ballistic missiles, which have similar advantages.

     Also Friday, South Korea and the U.S. kicked off Max Thunder, an air force drill involving 1,840 personnel, as part of joint military exercises to be conducted until late April. North Korea has slammed these exercises, which it insists could trigger a nuclear war. The reclusive state could continue such provocations after the failed Friday launch.

     But Pyongyang also might be open to dialogue. North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong is expected to attend a United Nations event April 22, making a rare trip to the U.S. outside of attending U.N. General Assembly meetings.

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