North Korea is "throwing" missiles up — some still experimental — to show the Trump administration the country is a "serious" international player, multiple U.S. officials told NBC News.
Two officials said it doesn’t seem to matter to the Kim Jong Un regime whether the tests succeed or fail, and most have failed.
On Friday, a missile capable of striking targets in South Korea detonated minutes after launch, scattering debris over land and sea. Called the KN-17, the missile is among those the officials said Pyongyang has launched knowing they might not be ready.
"They want to show they can," one official said. "They believe they learn something new from every launch, success or failure."
In fact, the Musudan, the most advanced missile the North has tested, has failed six out of the eight times it’s been fired in the past year — leading one CIA analyst to say it "comes equipped with its own fire extinguisher."
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Some of the tests have broken new ground, like the successful Feb. 12 test of a mobile, solid-fueled missile that can be launched from a submarine.
But most important to the North Koreans, said a second official, is the political symbolism, and the message intended for Donald Trump. The North Koreans are "setting a baseline with the new president … [They are] serious and want to make sure he knows."
The U.S. has also noticed an increase in the tempo of North Korean launches, again attributing the change to the inauguration of President Trump. In the first four months of 2016, North Korea launched five missiles. None succeeded. This year, 10 missiles were launched. At least five succeeded.
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There were no launches between the election of Donald Trump as president and his inauguration. Then, during the next six weeks, Pyongyang launched seven, including the spectacular four-missile display in early March that North Korean media described as simulating a nuclear strike on U.S. bases in Japan. It was meant to be a five-missile display, but one of the missiles failed.
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As two of the officials noted, launching missiles is far less in-your-face than a sixth nuclear test.
However, officials said there is no guarantee Pyongyang will not test another device. And on Monday, Pyongyang announced it was stepping up its nuclear testing program "to the maximum."