North Korea made a failed attempt to launch a mid-range ballistic missile hours ahead of the final U.S. presidential debate on Wednesday, apparently hoping to redirect the spotlight toward its weapons development.
Pyongyang fired what was assumed to be a Musudan mid-range missile at about 6.30 am local time, U.S. Strategic Command said, just three hours before the third and final showdown between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in Las Vegas.
The abortive show of force came after the U.S. and South Korea condemned Pyongyang for launching a Musudan missile less than a week earlier. That attempt also ended in failure after the missile exploded shortly after takeoff, the allies said.
With a presumed range of more than 3,000 km, a functional Musudan would theoretically be capable of striking U.S. bases in Japan and Guam, as well as threatening South Korea. While the missile has undergone a string of failed launches and has never demonstrated its full range, an analysis published by 38 North this week warned that it could be fully operational within months.
“If they continue at this rate, the Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missile could enter operational service sometime next year–much sooner than had previously been expected,” wrote John Schilling, an aerospace engineer.
At the same time as it has been honing its missile capabilities, Kim Jong-un’s regime has advanced a nuclear program that has drawn censure and sanctions from the United Nations Security Council. Last month, Pyongyang carried out its fifth and biggest nuclear test, an unprecedented achievement for being its second successful detonation in a year.
North Korea typically places military force front and center of its propaganda efforts, as both a deterrent to U.S. intervention and a bargaining chip to extract aid and relief from sanctions. With the timing of its latest launch, Pyongyang may have hoped to propel itself back to the top of the U.S. political agenda.
“Just like Dr. Strangelove said: A doomsday machine is useless if nobody knows that you have it,” said Daniel Pinkston, a North Korea analyst at Troy University.
“They will utilize their military capabilities for coercive purposes, of course,” he added.
If Pyongyang was gunning for a mention on the presidential debate stage, it failed. Neither the Democratic nor Republican candidate made even a passing reference to North Korea, although Trump did reiterate his call for South Korea to pay more toward the cost of stationing U.S. troops on its soil.
Previously, former Secretary of State Clinton has supported additional sanctions against the regime, while calling for renewed pressure on China so it will tame its ally.
In stark contrast to the current policy of President Obama, Trump has indicated a willingness to talk to Kim without strings and suggested South Korea and Japan should be allowed acquire their own nuclear deterrent.
During the second presidential debate, Trump said China should “go into” North Korea, sparking discussion about whether he was advocating military intervention by Beijing.