File photos show the launch of a North Korean Hwasong-12 missile. Photos: Handout

Just as a thaw appears to be emerging between the two feuding Korean governments, news has come about a missile test misfire by Pyongyang in April 2017 – which allegedly struck a city in central North Korea.

Papers around the world on Friday relayed a shattering exposé by the Diplomat magazine that an intermediate range missile fired by the hardline regime on April 28 last year veered off trajectory shortly after launch and plunged into Tokchon, a city of 237,000 residents less than 100 kilometers northeast of Pyongyang.

Tokchon, where the missile landed in April 2017, is seen north of Pyongyang. Photo: Google Maps

The US Pacific Command said at the time that the test missile was launched from “near” Pukchang Airfield, a previously unused launch site for testing of North Korean ballistic missiles.

Since the earliest days of ballistic missiles by Nazi Germany in World War II, the most dangerous moments in missile tests and firing are the launch and immediate post-launch phases.

The North Korean weapon remained airborne for “one minute” and flew for 40km before one of its first-stage engines apparently failed, causing the weapon to crash and explode on impact. It was meant to soar east and splash into the Sea of Japan, where most missiles tested in Pyongyang’s ongoing nuclear and military build-up end up.

Satellite images show the likely site hit by the failed missile. Photos: Google Maps/The Diplomat

Commercially available satellite imagery from April and May 2017 seems to confirm the suspected failed missile launch. A building in Chongsin-dong, Tokchon, which appeared to be a greenhouse, was severely damaged with a crater-like impact zone on the ground, believed to have been caused by the highly volatile liquid propellant of the missile, the magazine said, citing an anonymous US official.

The missile was said to be a Hwasong-12 model with an estimated operational range of 3,700–6,000km. It had unveiled in a military parade just before the accident. The North’s latest successful missile test involved a Hwasong-15, a model believed to be intercontinental – that is, having the capacity of flying over 5,500km.

No casualties were reported, but given Pyongyang’s rigid control of the press, it is impossible to know the extent of the destruction and possible loss of life caused by a missile plunging into a populated area.

Massive blast in Ryongchong in 2004

The global community is still unaware exactly what caused a massive explosion that devastated the city of Ryongchong in 2004, soon after then-North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il had passed through in his personal train. The explosion destroyed some 1,850 buildings; death toll estimates range between 160 and 3,000. Theories for the disaster suggest it could have been an industrial accident, a transport accident – involving a train or trains carrying explosive chemicals – or even an assassination plot.

Kim Jong-un inspects a Kwasong missile. Photo: Reuters/KCNA

Observers are also worried that neighboring countries may regard it as an act of provocation or war should North Korean missiles and rockets veer off course and hit unintended foreign targets in South Korea, Japan or even China. The consequences in the region could be catastrophic.

In December a full-page feature on nuclear safety and protection that appeared in the Jilin Daily, the provincial mouthpiece of Jilin province in northeastern China that borders North Korea, further fuelled public fears about missiles with nuclear bombs amid the precarious state of peninsula affairs.

Residents in Japan’s Hokkaido prefecture, which has had multiple North Korean missiles flying through its skies in recent years, are now conducting regular air-raid and nuclear-evacuation drills.

In a separate incident, the crew on a Hong Kong-bound Cathay Pacific passenger flight said they witnessed a rocket-like object explode and fall into the sea when the plane was believed to be above the Sea of Japan in the wee hours of November 29, not too long after Pyongyang fired an intercontinental ballistic missile. The carrier later revealed that one of its cargo planes could have been even closer to the missile.

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