(Adds comment from South Korean military official)
By Ju-min Park
SEOUL, March 22 (Reuters) - A North Korean missile appeared to have exploded on Wednesday just after it was launched, the U.S. and South Korean militaries said after detecting the latest in a series of weapons tests by the nuclear-armed state that have alarmed the region.
The launch attempt was made from near the city of Wonsan, on North Korea’s east coast, the same place from where it launched several intermediate-range missiles last year, all but one of which failed.
“U.S. Pacific Command detected what we assess was a failed North Korean missile launch attempt ... in the vicinity of Kalma,” Commander Dave Benham, a spokesman for U.S. Pacific Command, said in a statement, referring to an air field in Wonsan.
“A missile appears to have exploded within seconds of launch,” Benham said, adding that work was being carried out on a more detailed assessment.
A South Korean military official told Reuters the missile appeared to have exploded just after it was launched.
“It may have exploded right after it took off from a launch pad,” said military official, who declined to be identified.
It was not clear what type of missile it was. The South Korean defence ministry said it was conducting analysis to determine further details.
The increasing frequency of the missile tests has fuelled a growing sense of urgency over how to respond to the isolated, unpredictable state.
North Korea launched four ballistic missiles from near its west coast on March 6 and this week conducted a rocket engine test that its leader, Kim Jong Un, said opened “a new birth” of its rocket industry.
The latest launch came as the U.S. envoy for North Korea policy, Joseph Yun, met his South Korean counterpart in Seoul to discuss a response to the North’s weapons programmes.
Just last week U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Japan, South Korea and China and how to handle North Korea was a major issue in his talks.
Speaking in Seoul on Friday, Tillerson said a policy of strategic patience with North Korea had ended and all options, including a military one, were on the table if North Korea threatened South Korean or U.S. forces.
North Korea has conducted two nuclear tests and a series of missile launches since the beginning of last year in defiance of U.N. resolutions. It is believed to be working to develop nuclear-tipped missiles that can reach the United States.
U.S. President Donald Trump rebuked Kim on Sunday, saying the North Korean leader was “acting very, very badly”.
A senior U.S. official in Washington told Reuters on Monday that the Trump administration was considering sweeping sanctions as part of a broad review of measures to counter North Korea’s nuclear and missile threat.
The United States is also deploying an advanced missile- defence system in South Korea. But China objects to the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, saying its powerful radar can penetrate deep into its territory, undermining its security.
Undaunted by the possibility of even tougher sanctions aimed at cutting North Korea off from the global financial system, a North Korean diplomat said his government would pursue an “acceleration” of its nuclear and missile programmes.
This includes developing a “pre-emptive first strike capability” and an inter-continental ballistic missile, said Choe Myong Nam, deputy ambassador at the DPRK (North Korean) mission to the United Nations in Geneva.
Japan’s Nikkei index and South Korean stocks extended losses slightly after news of a North Korean launch broke but trade was steady overall. (Reporting by Idrees Ali in WASHINGTON, Kaori Kaneko and Chris Gallagher in TOKYO, Jiwon Choi and Christine Kim in SEOUL; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)