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North Korea launched a projectile on Wednesday, but it looks to have failed almost immediately, according to Seoul, with analysts warning that it was most likely a test of Pyongyang's dubbed "monster missile."

The launch comes after the United States reported North Korea was prepared to fire an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) "at full range" for the first time since 2017.

Pyongyang conducted seven missile tests and twice launched components of what it claimed was a "reconnaissance satellite" in January, despite harsh international sanctions over its nuclear programmes.

Last Monday, South Korea and the United States confirmed that the tests were of a new intercontinental ballistic missile system that had never been launched before, most likely the Hwasong-17, called a "monster missile" by analysts after its first unveiling at a parade in October 2020.

"About 09:30 today, North Korea fired an unknown missile from the Sunan area," the Joint Chiefs of Staff of Seoul stated in a statement. "It's thought to have failed soon after launch."

According to the South Korean military, the "satellite" tests on February 27 and March 5 were also conducted in Pyongyang's Sunan area.

According to Japanese media, the launch on Wednesday was a "possible ballistic missile" test, according to an unnamed defence ministry official.

Senior government officials were meeting at the prime minister's office to discuss the issue, according to National Network NHK.

The nuclear-armed North has long lusted after an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) capable of carrying multiple warheads, and the US declared last week that the recent tests signalled a "significant escalation" of the country's weapons programmes. 

The US military announced last week that missile defence systems in South Korea had been "improved."

Following the recent North Korean launches, it has also "intensified" air defence training and conducted a carrier-based air demonstration in the Yellow Sea.

Is that a monster missile?

The North has tested three Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), the most recent of which was a Hwasong-15 in November 2017. These missiles are powerful enough to reach Washington and the rest of the continental United States.

However, since 2017, when North Korean leader Kim Jong Un embarked on a flurry of high-level diplomacy, the country has been observing a self-imposed embargo on testing long-range and nuclear missiles

Negotiations with then-US President Donald Trump broke down in 2019, and Kim has since redoubled his efforts to modernise his military while disregarding US offers of dialogue.

Cheong Seong-Chang, a senior researcher at the private Sejong Institute, told AFP that "signs indicate the North test-fired Hwasong-17 today."

According to Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, "the Kim government wants to demonstrate fresh technical achievements around the 110th birth anniversary of its founder, Kim Il-Sung."

"North Korea will almost probably continue to test if the most recent missile launch was a failure," he added.

North Korea appears to be planning a military display for the April anniversary, according to satellite pictures.

According to North Korean studies researcher Ahn Chan-il, the failure of the Wednesday launch suggests that it was not just "an ordinary missile."

Pyongyang is seeking maximum leverage, he added, because the time coincides with a South Korean presidential transition and while the world's attention is focused on Ukraine.

A new ICBM launch would be an immediate test for South Korea's incoming president-elect, Yoon Suk-yeol, who has promised to be tougher on the North's provocations.

Yoon has not ruled out communication with Pyongyang, but observers say his hawkish stance puts him in a different league than his liberal predecessor and severely reduces the chances of meaningful interaction.