North Korea’s relentless pursuit of more capable ballistic missile platforms has led to a number of spectacular failures, but it seems at least one actually resulted in an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) flying off course in crashing into a heavily populated North Korean city last year.
According to a report first published in The Diplomat, a Hwasong-12, one of the predecessors to Kim’s recently unveiled Hwasong-15, was launched on April 28th, 2017 from Pukchang Airfield in South Pyongan Province. Almost immediately after launch, however, a failure in the platform’s first stage sent the rocket spiraling into the nearby city of Tokchon, where it caused damage to a complex that, according to satellite imagery, appears to be comprised of either industrial or agricultural buildings.
Most intermediate to long-range ballistic missile platforms utilize a multiple stage design (usually two or three). It would seem that it was a failure in the first stage of the rocket that prevented the Hwasong-12 from ever igniting its second, topping the missile’s flight path out at approximately 70 miles, and sending it on an uncontrolled descent into Tokchon, some 24 or so miles away.
At the time, U.S. and South Korean officials were aware of the test failure, but the damage the missile caused upon making landfall couldn’t be confirmed until satellite images of the area were taken in the following month.
Those satellite images taken before and after the launch appear to show a ground disturbance where there had been a building and surrounding fence before, seemingly an impact crater from the landing of the Hwasong-12. It is unlikely that the damage was caused by an explosive warhead mounted on the missile, but rather from an explosion caused by the volatile mix of hypergolic propellant and oxidizer used to propel liquid fuel rockets. Because the first stage failed and the second stage of the missile never fired, there was likely a substantial amount of fuel within the fuselage of the missile remaining when it made landfall.
It is likely the world will never know if any people were killed or injured in the incident, as North Korea has made a habit of never acknowledging failures in their nuclear and ballistic missile efforts. Last year, a cave complex at North Korea’s nuclear test site suffered multiple collapses, likely as a result of their hydrogen bomb testing in September, that is believed to have claimed more than 200 lives. Neither Kim nor his regime have made any public statements addressing the incident whatsoever, though reports indicate that the man responsible for the complex was put to death in the weeks following the incident.
Image courtesy of KCNA