By HYUNG-JIN KIM and KIM TONG-HYUNG, Associated Press

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea’s latest weapons launch on Wednesday apparently ended in failure, the South Korean military said, amid speculation the North may soon launch its largest long-range missile in its biggest provocation in years.

It was not immediately clear what North Korea launched on Wednesday morning or at what stage it had an apparent failure. But the launch, the 10th of its kind this year, shows North Korea is determined to continue its efforts to modernize its weapons arsenal and pressure rivals to make concessions amid denuclearization talks in sleep.

South Korean and U.S. intelligence authorities were analyzing details of the launch from the Pyongyang area around 9:30 a.m. which apparently failed, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement without elaborating.

Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno told reporters that a ballistic missile flight had not been confirmed and that Tokyo was working with Washington and Seoul to further analyze what happened.

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Experts say past failures have brought North Korea even closer to its goal of acquiring a viable nuclear arsenal that could threaten the American homeland. Of eight “Musudan” intermediate-range missile tests in 2016, only one of those launches was deemed successful by outside analysts, leading to debates over whether North Korea’s path to the ICBMs had been cut off.

However, in 2017 the North flew more powerful intermediate-range missiles over Japan and conducted three successful test flights of ICBMs that demonstrated potential range to strike deep into the continental United States.

North Korea’s successful satellite launches in 2012 and 2016 – which were seen by the UN as disguised tests of its long-range missile technology – have also followed repeated failures.

The US and South Korean armies said last week that North Korea had tested an ICBM system in two recent launches, referring to the Hwasong-17 development missile that North Korea unveiled at a military parade in October 2020.

In both recent launches on Feb. 27 and March 5, North Korean missiles traveled medium-range distances, and experts said North Korea could possibly conduct a full-range ICBM test.

The North said it tested cameras and other systems for a spy satellite and released what it said were photos taken from space during one of the two tests, but did not confirm what rocket or what missile he had launched.

Observers say North Korea is aiming to boost its ICBM capability while trying to get its first spy satellite into orbit. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has pledged to acquire an upgraded ICBM and a spy satellite among a range of sophisticated weapons systems he says his country needs to deal with what he calls hostility American.

The Hwasong-17 is North Korea’s largest missile, which could fly up to 15,000 kilometers (9,320 miles), far enough to strike anywhere in the United States and beyond. The 25-meter (82-foot) missile, which was again displayed at a defense exhibition in Pyongyang last year, has yet to be tested.

The three ICBMs that North Korea tested in 2017 were the Hwasong-14 and the Hwasong-15. Some analysts say developing a larger missile could mean the country tries to arm its long-range weapons with multiple warheads to overcome missile defense systems.

If North Korea conducts another ICBM launch, it would be its highest-profile weapons tests since its third and final ICBM launch in November 2017.

North Korea will likely call its potential new ICBM test a rocket launch to place a reconnaissance satellite in space, not a weapons test. That could invite condemnation, but probably not new UN sanctions, some analysts say, since Russia and China exercise veto power in the Security Council and would oppose it.

Other North Korean missiles tested this year were mostly shorter-range nuclear-capable weapons that put South Korea and Japan, two key US allies, within striking range. In January alone, North Korea conducted seven rounds of missile tests, the highest number of monthly tests since Kim took power in late 2011.

US-led diplomacy aimed at persuading North Korea to abandon its nuclear program collapsed in 2019 due to wrangling over US sanctions against the North. Washington has urged North Korea to resume talks without any preconditions, but Pyongyang has rejected such overtures, saying the United States must first withdraw its hostile policies.

In January, North Korea hinted at lifting its 4-year moratorium on ICBMs and nuclear testing. South Korea’s Defense Ministry said on Friday it detected signs that North Korea was likely restoring some of the tunnels at its nuclear test site it blew up before nuclear diplomacy now dormant. .

The U.S. Treasury Department announced new sanctions last week against three Russian-based entities that have contributed to the continued development of North Korea’s military capabilities and two individuals linked to those companies. The sanctions block access to any US assets they hold.

Associated Press writer Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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