The attempted launch occurred a day after the regime of Kim Jong Un showed off a bevy of new missiles
and launchers at a large-scale military parade on its most important holiday.
A South Korean defense official said the action took place in Sinpo, a port city in eastern North Korea. That was the site of a ballistic missile test earlier this month in which the projectile fell into the Sea of Japan, also known as the East Sea.
The North Koreans use Sinpo shipyard for their submarine activity, and US satellites have observed increased activity there in April, a US official said at the time of the previous test.
South Korean and US intelligence officials are trying to determine what type of missile was used Sunday, but initial reports said it could be a medium-range missile, according to a White House foreign policy adviser.
US Vice President Mike Pence, who is in the area as part of previous scheduled trip, was briefed on the launch, administration officials said.
President Donald Trump has been in contact, aides to the vice president said. "The President and his military team are aware of North Korea's most recent unsuccessful missile launch. The President has no further comment," US Defense Secretary James Mattis said.
Addressing US service members and their families at a "fellowship meal" in Seoul, Pence noted the "challenging time" for the world. "Our commitment to this historic alliance with the courageous people of South Korea has never been stronger, and with your help and with God's help, freedom will ever prevail on this peninsula," he said.
South Korean officials convened a meeting of the National Security Council in the wake of the failed test. "Our government condemns this serious threat on the Korean peninsula and overall international society," the South Korean foreign ministry said in a statement.
If Sunday's missile launch leads to a nuclear test or an ICBM launch, there would be "a powerful punishing measure that North Korean authority can't endure," South Korean officials said.
US Pacific Command said it tracked a missile launch at 5:21 p.m. ET and said the missile blew up almost immediately. The missile was launched from the same point of the April 5 launch, a White house foreign policy adviser said.
US military officials don't believe the missile had intercontinental capabilities, a US defense official told CNN. The official said there was limited data as the missile blew up so quickly.
Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the think tank RAND Corporation, said he thinks the missiles were not the kind that could reach the United States' mainland. "The North doesn't seem to be quite at the place to test an ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile)," he said.
CNN's Will Ripley in Pyongyang, North Korea, reported there was no immediate confirmation from North Korean state media about the launch.
North Korea's actions come as tensions on the Korean Peninsula have spiked.
The US Navy dispatched the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson strike group
to the region last weekend, and Trump said this week that if China can't rein in North Korea's nuclear program, the United States will.
The group brought ships that could shoot down missiles that North Korea has been testing.
"I think the (Trump) administration anticipated that a ballistic missile launch would occur, and I have to wonder whether they were prepared to use the ships that are with that carrier group to shoot down that missile" as long as the ships were positioned in the right spots, Bennett said.
Analysts had expected North Korea to conduct a nuclear missile test around the time of his visit, possibly on Saturday as the nation celebrated the 105th birthday of its founder -- Kim II Sung, the late grandfather of North Korea's current leader.
The status of the North Korean underground nuclear test program is unchanged, a senior US defense official told CNN, and a test could come at any time.
The reported failed test comes at a time of year when North Korea has previously tried to launch missiles. Last year, Pyongyang attempted to launch a Musudan missile on April 15, an auspicious date on which millions celebrate Kim II Sung's birthday.
That test also failed.