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North Korea tries to cover up failed ICBM launch

North Korea is attempting to discredit reports of a failed intercontinental ballistic missile launch, dismissing the accounts as hearsay even though many people in Pyongyang saw the rocket explode over the city, sources in the capital told RFA.

North Korean media reported on March 24 that it successfully completed tests of the new Hwasong-17 ICBM, attributing its success to leader Kim Jong Un’s bravery. South Korean military authorities, however, reported Tuesday that the Hwasong-17 was involved in an earlier failed test launch on March 16. The March 24 launch was actually the older Hwasong-15 missile, they said.

The North Korean government is now denying “rumors” of loud sounds and flashes that could be heard and seen over Pyongyang on March 16.

“I have heard on various occasions through meetings and gatherings that there have been baseless rumors circulating about missile explosions. These rumors undermine the defense technology of our republic,” a Pyongyang city official told RFA’s Korean Service March 30.

“There is an emphasis from higher ups that we should not believe or get involved in these false rumors spread by hostile forces, and evil people who hold a grudge against our way of life,” said the official, who requested anonymity for security reasons.

The official admitted that the so-called rumors were in fact true.

“On the morning of March 16th, people in the districts of Sunan, Hyongjesan and Ryongsong heard a loud roar that seemed to pierce the sky and a ‘bang’ sound and witnessed pieces of debris falling and smoking,” he said.

“I heard from a friend in the same department who has a house in Sunan … that his wife went outside to hang clothes and heard a big airplane passing by and heard a ‘bang.’ After a while, she saw small pieces of shards falling nearby while smoking,” the official said.

The official said that others in Ryongsong and Hyongjesan districts saw similar events unfold.

“I even heard from a friend who lives in Ryongsong district that two people in Chungi-dong were struck by large pieces of debris falling,” he said.

“About a week after these testimonies, there was a report that the launch of new intercontinental ballistic missile ‘Hwasong-17’ on March 24th was a great success under the direct guidance of Kim Jong Un,” said the official.

Pyongyang has not only been trying to pass off the launch on the 24th as the Hwasong-17, it is also trying to use the event to lionize Kim.

“People say that Kim Jong Un seems like an actor in a well-produced music video on the TV reports he appears in. The missile launch failed, but I don’t understand the government’s effort to hide it,” he said.

North Korea has sent agents into the provinces for damage control, a resident of South Pyongan province, north of Pyongyang, told RFA.

“Last week, an executive appeared at the morning assembly at my company, saying there were rumors that a missile launch failed. He emphasized that we were not to believe the false rumors spread by evil forces intent on internally breaking us down,” said the resident, who requested anonymity to speak freely.

“But people are acknowledging the missile explosion as a fact. In Pyongyang as well as here, people saw flashing lights and smoke from the sky, and small fragments of debris fell here and there,” she said.

The resident said others, including her cousin who lives in another South Pyongan town, saw flashing lights and heard bangs in the sky.

“Although the incident has been witnessed by many, the authorities are dismissing it as a rumor spread by evildoers. There are many citizens who directly witnessed the explosion in the air, but I don’t know what the authorities are afraid of that they would hide the truth,” she said.

More sanctions

The U.S. Treasury Department Friday sanctioned five North Korean entities for their involvement in ballistic missile development programs in violation of several United Nations Security Council resolutions.

In a statement, the Treasury Department said the sanctions target a North Korean organization that conducts research and development of weapons of mass destruction and four of its revenue-generating subsidiaries.

“The DPRK’s provocative ballistic missile tests represent a clear threat to regional and global security and are in blatant violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions,” said Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen in the statement.

“The United States is committed to using our sanctions authorities to respond to the DPRK’s continued development of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles. I also commend Japan for their actions today against the DPRK, and stand ready to continue to work together to counter the DPRK’s continued threatening behavior,” she said.

Analysts applauded the move.

“It’s a positive sign, in that the U.S. is taking action against North Korea’s weapons development and testing,” Soo Kim of the RAND Corporation told RFA.

“But I would underscore that the latest designations are subsidiaries of organizations that should probably have been designated. So it’s unclear whether this will have teeth in terms of impact,” she said. 

Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation, a group that promotes free enterprise and limited government, that there are any remaining North Korean entities to sanction, given its long and expansive history of violations of U.N. resolutions and U.S. laws.

“It raises the question as to why Washington chose not to [sanction them] until now and how many other North Korean and other country entities the US could sanction but has not done so,” Klingner told RFA.

“Each U.S. administration has claimed to be tough on North Korea and other violators but chose not to fully enforce U.S. laws. Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ was never maximum. Indeed, he announced he was not sanctioning 300 North Korean entities and 12 Chinese banks that had violated US laws. Sanctions, like diplomacy, are a tool that should be used in conjunction with other tools of international power,” he said. 

Translated by Claire Lee. Written in English by Eugene Whong.