National Security

North Korea turns up the heat on Trump


North Korea’s missile launch over Japan early Tuesday morning was a clear signal to the Trump administration that the nuclear regime is not backing away from its provocative behavior.

Pyongyang had stayed relatively quiet since President Trump’s improvised warning that continued threats would be met by “fire and fury.” North Korea responded by threatening a missile strike on the U.S. territory of Guam but took no other action.

The administration hailed its apparent success, with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson telling reporters last week he was “pleased” North Korea had “demonstrated some level of restraint that we’ve not seen in the past.”


But the launch on Tuesday of an intermediate-range ballistic missile that soared for two minutes over Japanese territory before crashing into the Pacific signaled that North Korea’s young leader is uncowed by Trump’s threats.

The regime also launched three short-range missiles into the sea between the peninsula and Japan on Friday, although Tuesday’s launch is considered a more significant move.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a hawk on North Korea, called the launch “a big-time escalation of conflict.” And U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley followed with a message that “enough is enough.”

“No country should have missiles flying over them like those 130 million people in Japan. It’s unacceptable,” Haley told reporters Tuesday. “Something serious has to happen.”

Jeffrey Lewis, an expert on foreign nuclear programs, said the launch is part of a pattern of provocations likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

“This is a new phase in which a nuclear armed North Korea feels it can and should engage in provocations, so we’re probably in for a pretty rough year,” said Lewis, who specializes in nonproliferation at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.

But, he cautioned, Kim Jong Un was not trying to spark a conflict. Nuclear war “is not anyone’s goal,” Lewis said.

Rather, Lewis and other experts say North Korea is trying to divide America from its regional allies.

The U.S. and South Korea last week began their annual joint military exercises in the region, war games that always anger North Korea. Pyongyang treats the drills as a rehearsal for invasion and almost always responds with some show of force.

Tuesday’s launch threatens to strain the U.S. relationship with Japan and South Korea, both of whom view it as more than just symbolic defiance. Although Pyongyang has flown satellite rockets over Japan on two other occasions, this was the first time they used a military missile.

“The ICBM is intended to threaten the continental United States, which is a way of [North Korea] saying to U.S. allies in the region: ‘The United States can’t protect you and won’t protect you,’” said Adam Mount, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

Trump said in a Tuesday statement that “all options are on the table” in response to the launch.

But the U.S. response was muted compared to regional partners. Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe called the launch “an outrageous act that poses an unprecedented, grave and serious threat,” while the South Korean air force conducted a live-fire drill that accurately dropped eight MK-84 bombs on targets near the country’s east coast.

The United States has determined the launch did not pose a threat to North America or the U.S. territory of Guam. The Pentagon assured, however, that the U.S. “commitment to the defense of our allies, including the Republic of Korea and Japan, in the face of these threats, remains ironclad,” according to a Tuesday statement.

“We remain prepared to defend ourselves and our allies from any attack or provocation,” the Defense Department said. “We continue to monitor North Korea’s actions closely.”

Trump has been trying — largely unsuccessfully — to pressure China to do more to curb North Korea’s missile program. China, which is North Korea’s major food and fuel provider, has been wary of taking any action that might destabilize the region, such as imposing tougher sanctions on Pyongyang.

But before the recent missile tests, for 28 days, a lull in North Korean activity appeared to signal success for the Trump administration.

The last missile test prior to Friday was on July 28. On Aug. 5, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution to impose the most punishing sanctions yet on the rogue regime.

Just over two weeks later, Tillerson praised Pyongyang’s restraint and expressed hope that it might pave the way for future talks, though he cautioned that “we need to see more.”

“We have had no missile launches or provocative acts on the part of North Korea since the unanimous adoption of the U.N. Security Council resolution,” Tillerson said. “We hope that this is the beginning of this signal that we’ve been looking for — that they are ready to restrain their level of tensions, they’re ready to restrain their provocative acts, and that perhaps we are seeing our pathway to sometime in the near future having some dialogue.”

Around the same time, shortly after vowing to make Kim “truly regret” harming the U.S. or its allies, Trump in a tweet praised North Korea’s decision to back down from threatening Guam, calling it “wise.”

The administration’s celebration of the 28-day pause now appears premature — and, some critics say, inadvisable.

“All the crowing about how they backed down was some of the dumbest things I’ve ever seen,” Lewis said. “First of all, they hadn’t necessarily backed down, and second, of all, don’t publicly crow.”

Lisa Collins, an expert on North Korea at the think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, predicted the U.S. will continue to see North Korea hold missiles launches or nuclear tests in the near future, what she dubbed “testing the escalation ladder.”

‘“It’s building up tensions and trying to test what it can do within a degree of boundaries and without drawing a military reaction from the United States,” she said.

Until a nation deems North Korean missile and nuclear tests unbearable they will continue, said Dan Blumenthal a former senior director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia at the Pentagon under President George W. Bush.

“It’s hard to see how any one of these countries lives over the long-term with the constant North Korean testing,” said Blumenthal, now the American Enterprise Institute director of Asian studies.

“The U.S. may decide the policy is you can’t live with Kim Jong Un, but that then takes a lot of risk.”

Blumenthal said the administration would find its options limited.

“Either you live with long-term deterrents like a fairly heavily militarized northeast Asia — which is where we’re moving right now —  or you eventually work with China or towards unification without Kim. There’s no other options.”

Tags Lindsey Graham Nikki Haley Rex Tillerson
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