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North Korea's Failed Missile Launch Eases Experts' Worst-Case Scenario Fears

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A tense weekend of brinksmanship between the United States and North Korea culminated in a failed missile test from the reclusive dictatorship. And while the busted launch does highlight the country's long-term commitment to advancing its warfare capabilities, it also shouldn't cause undo alarm. In fact, it was something close to routine.

North Korean officials have long hinted at the country's aspirations for long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles that can carry miniaturized nuclear warheads. They've made advances toward abandoning liquid fuel for solid, which offers both added stability and the chance to fire quickly enough to avoid detection. At a holiday military parade on Saturday the country showed off what appear to be a new type of long-range missile, a new reentry apparatus on a known missile, canisters big enough to hold extremely large missiles (that may have been empty), and extensive displays of solid fuel technology. Prior to the weekend, analysts looking at satellite photos of a North Korean nuclear test site had reported that the facility seemed to be gearing up for a test.

All of which spelled potential escalation. But based on the Saturday missile launch that actually happened, experts don't yet see proof that North Korea can make good on all of its technological claims.

Missile Control

Saturday's test at a submarine base on North Korea's eastern coast ended almost as soon as it began. The missile, which seems to have been a medium-range KN-17 model, and had what the State Department described as "prohibited technology," exploded four to five seconds after launch. It's unclear whether it used the solid fuel infrastructure North Korea has been working so hard to adopt, or liquid fuel. North Korea did another KN-17 test on April 4 that progressed a bit farther, but that missile crashed into the Sea of Japan after traveling less than 40 miles.

International officials and media speculated that the test could have been sabotaged by a US Department of Defense hacking campaign that reportedly thwarted a series of North Korean missile launch tests in 2016. But analysts are skeptical that hacking played a role.

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