By Jack Kim and Michelle Nichols
SEOUL/UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - North Korea unsuccessfully test-fired a ballistic missile on Saturday from a region north of its capital, Pyongyang, South Korea's military said, defying intense pressure from the United States and the reclusive state's main ally, China.
The test came as U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned the United Nations Security Council that failure to curb North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programs could lead to 'catastrophic consequences'.
U.S. and South Korean officials said the test appeared to have failed, in what would be a fourth successive unsuccessful missile test since March.
U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the missile was probably a medium-range missile known as a KN-17 and appears to have broken up within minutes of taking off.
Tension had spiked on the Korean peninsula over concerns the North may conduct the test-launch of a long-range missile or its sixth nuclear test around the time of the April 15 anniversary of its state founder's birth or the day marking the founding of its military earlier this week.
The timing of the latest launch suggests it was calculated to send a certain message as Pyongyang remains under intense attention of world powers, said Kim Dong-yub, an expert at Kyungnam University's Institute of Far Eastern Studies in Seoul.
“It was planned at a complicated timing around the end of the South Korea-U.S. joint military drills, the United States talking about military options and the announcement of North Korea policies and the Security Council meeting,” Kim said.
South Korean and U.S. forces have been conducting annual military drills since the start of March that conclude at the end of April.
In a show of force, the United States is sending the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier group to waters off the Korean peninsula, where it will join the USS Michigan, a nuclear submarine that docked in South Korea on Tuesday.
U.S. President Donald Trump told Reuters in an interview on Thursday a "major, major conflict" with North Korea was possible over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
Trump praised Chinese leader Xi Jinping for "trying very hard" to rein in Pyongyang.
But both China and Russia rebuked Washington's threat of military force at a meeting of the U.N. Security Council on the matter on Friday.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told the 15-member council it was not only up to China to solve the North Korean problem.
"The key to solving the nuclear issue on the peninsula does not lie in the hands of the Chinese side," Wang told the council in blunt remarks that Tillerson later rebuffed.
The U.N. Security Council is likely to start discussing a statement to condemn the missile launch, said diplomats, adding that it was unlikely to be issued on Friday. The Security Council traditionally condemns all missile launches by Pyongyang.
"It could have happened today exactly because we had the meeting," Italian U.N. Ambassador Sebastiano Cardi, chair of the Security Council's North Korean sanctions committee, told reporters when hearing of the test. "It's illegal, it should not be done, it's another provocative action by North Korea.”
Neighbouring Japan said the "unacceptable" launch clearly violated U.N. resolutions and said it had lodged a strong protest with North Korea.
(Additional reporting by Ju-min Park in Seoul, Idrees Ali in Washington, Malcolm Foster in Tokyo and Lesley Wroughton at the United Nations; Editing Lincoln Feast)