A North Korean missile launch that failed shortly after it was fired may have been thwarted by cyber attacks from the US.
The medium-range missile exploded seconds after it was launched on Sunday from a site near the port city of Sinpo, as Mike Pence, the US vice president, arrived in Seoul for talks with the South Korean government over how to deal with Pyongyang’s belligerence.
“It could have failed because the system is not competent enough to make it work, but there is a very strong belief that the US – through cyber methods – has been successful on several occasions in interrupting these sorts of tests and making them fail,” the former Conservative foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind told the BBC on Sunday.
In 2014, former US president Barack Obama ordered that efforts be stepped up to counter North Korea’s missile capabilities with cyber attacks and electronic warfare. North Korea has seen a significant increase in failed launches in the years since, though there has been no official claim of the programme’s success.
A US foreign policy adviser travelling with Mr Pence on Air Force Two said the test had come as no surprise.
“We had good intelligence before the launch and good intelligence after the launch,” the adviser told reporters on condition of anonymity.
“It’s a failed test. It follows another failed test. So really no need to reinforce their failure. We don’t need to expend any resources against that.”
South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff said analysts have not yet identified the type of missile that was launched, but it comes just a day after the North Korean military paraded through the streets of Pyongyang with an array of weapons that included what might be a new generation of intercontinental ballistic missile that is capable of striking the American mainland.
The parade was part of celebrations marking the 105th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, the founder of the North Korean state, and included a total of 56 missiles of 10 different models.
They included Pukkuksong-1 submarine-launched ballistic missiles, which the regime has been testing off its east coast.
“North Korea attempted to test an unidentified type of missile from the Sinpo area in South Hamkyong Province this morning, but we suspect the launch has failed,” the South Korean defence ministry said in a statement.
The North’s previous attempted missile launch, on April 5, also suffered an in-flight failure before the weapon crashed into the Sea of Japan.
There was also an unsuccessful missile launch in late March.
Experts have suggested that the United States may be carrying out “left-of-launch” attacks on the missiles using electromagnetic propagation or cyber attacks, including through infected electronics aboard the weapon that confuse its command and control or targeting systems.
The US Pacific Command had detected and tracked what it assessed to be a North Korean ballistic missile launch at 11.21am Hawaii time (21.21 GMT) on Saturday, accoring to US Navy Commander Dave Benham, a spokesman for Pacific Command.
“The missile blew up almost immediately. The type of missile is still being assessed,” he said.
South Korea will hold a national security meeting about the failed launch later this morning.
President Donald Trump, who is at his Mar-a-Lago retreat in Florida, has been briefed on the latest developments, Jim Mattis, the US defence secretary, said.
North Korean state media has made no comment on the launch, which analysts say is normal for the Pyongyang regime when things go awry.
North Korea is subject to United Nations sanctions because of its determination to pursue its nuclear weapons programme in defiance of the international community.
It has already carried out five nuclear tests, including two last year, as well as multiple missile launches.
The deployment of the fleet reflects a tougher line being taken by the US. But at the same time, President Trump, who met his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, just over a week ago, hopes that Beijing will be able to rein in Pyongyang.
A Foreign Office spokesman said: “We are concerned by reports of a missile test by North Korea and are monitoring the situation closely.”