The failure, which is likely to be seen as something of an embarrassment for the regime, came amid soaring tensions in the region over the North's nuclear weapons ambitions.
"The missile blew up almost immediately," the US Defence Department said of the early morning launch which was also monitored by the South Korean military.
Neither was able to determine immediately what kind of missile was being tested.
It came a day after North Korea displayed nearly 60 missiles -- including what is suspected to be a new intercontinental ballistic missile -- at a parade to mark the 105th birthday of its founder Kim Il-Sung.
WATCH: North Korea ready for all-out war
The parade was held in front of the cameras of invited world media, who were still in Pyongyang when Sunday's test failure was detected.
Pyongyang's rogue atomic ambitions have come into sharp focus in recent weeks, with United States President Donald Trump vowing a tough stance against the North and threatening unilateral action if China failed to help curb its neighbour's nuclear programme.
The latest missile test attempt comes just hours ahead of a visit by Vice President Mike Pence to Seoul, where the nuclear issue will be top of the agenda at talks with South Korea's acting president Hwang Kyo-Ahn.
Trump has repeatedly said he will prevent Pyongyang from its goal of developing a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile capable of reaching the mainland United States.
As hostilities in the region surge Trump has sent an aircraft carrier-led strike group to the Korean peninsula to press his point.
The North has reiterated its constant refrain that it is ready for "war" with the US.
WATCH: Bob Carr on China's North Korea influence
Its army vowed Friday a "merciless" response to any US provocation, adding that Trump had "entered the path of open threat and blackmail" against Pyongyang.
Speculation is brewing that the North is preparing a sixth nuclear test, with satellite images showing its main nuclear site "primed and ready," according to specialist US website 38North.
White House officials saying military options were "already being assessed".
China, the North's sole major ally, and Russia have both urged restraint, with Beijing's foreign minister Wang Yi warning Friday that "conflict could break out at any moment".
The UN Security Council has imposed six sets of sanctions against the North since its first nuclear test in 2006 -- all of which have failed to halt its drive for what it insists are defensive weapons.
US military confirms failed test
ave Benham, a spokesman with the US Pacific command said: "US Pacific Command detected and tracked what we assess was a North Korean missile launch at 11:21 am Hawaii time (2121 GMT) April 15."
"US Pacific Command is fully committed to working closely with our allies in the Republic of Korea and in Japan to maintain security," he said.
President Donald Trump was briefed on the development, amid sky-high US-North Korean tensions.
Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said in a statement: "The president and his military team are aware of North Korea's most recent unsuccessful missile launch. The president has no further comment."
Meanwhile, aides to Vice President Mike Pence, who was en route to South Korea and due to arrive in Seoul early Sunday, said he also had been briefed about the missile launch and was in contact with the president.