What happens when a North Korean ballistic missile test fails in flight and explodes in a populated area? On April 28, 2017, North Korea launched a single Hwasong-12/KN17 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) from Pukchang Airfield in South Pyongan Province (the Korean People’s Army’s Air and Anti-Air Force Unit 447 in Ryongak-dong, Sunchon City, to be more precise). That missile failed shortly after launch and crashed in the Chongsin-dong, in North Korean city of Tokchon, causing considerable damage to a complex of industrial or agricultural buildings.
According to a U.S. government source with knowledge of North Korea’s weapons programs who spoke to The Diplomat, the missile’s first stage engines failed after approximately one minute of powered flight, resulting in catastrophic failure. The missile never flew higher than approximately 70 kilometers. The location of the missile’s eventual impact was revealed exclusively to The Diplomat and evidence of the incident can be independently corroborated in commercially available satellite imagery from April and May 2017.
The April 28 failure merits close analysis, especially as North Korea continues to carry out flight-testing of its various ballistic missile platforms from a range of new test sites. In 2017, North Korea has introduced new sites for missile testing, arguably to demonstrate the flexibility of its Strategic Rocket Force. It has even carried out ballistic missile launches from a restricted area at Pyongyang’s Sunan Airport, which also serves as the country’s primary civil aviation facility and the entrypoint for most non-Chinese foreign visitors to North Korea. The potential for similar accidents occurring over Pyongyang, the country’s capital, or other populated regions remains high, especially with untested systems.