President Trump Faces First Asian Challenges: The North Korean Missile Launch


2017-02-12 By Richard Weitz

The target of North Korea’s ballistic missile test this weekend, though aimed at the Sea of Japan, was President Donald Trump and visiting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who called the launch “absolutely intolerable” and demanded that Pyongyang respect all UN Security Council Resolutions prohibiting such tests in a joint news conference yesterday night at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort.

The test was apparently not that of an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) given its 500km flight range; ICBMs have a range of 5,000 to 10,000km, sufficient for a missile launched from North Korea to reach the Continental United States.

Instead, the weapon was probably a medium or intermediate-range ballistic missile of the type that North Korea had tested many times before, especially in the months before last November’s U.S. elections.

One analyst called 2016 “the busiest year of missile and nuclear testing since 2006.”

North Korea ceased testing such missiles after the elections.

Yesterday’s launch was the first since President Trump assumed office, and coincided with Abe’s first official visit to the United States under the new administration.

U.S. planners had expected such an act since the DPRK has a pattern of welcoming new South Korean and U.S. leaders with missile tests, nuclear detonations, and other provocations.

North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un said in his New Year address that his country had developed such an ICBM and was preparing to test it. Kim offered to suspend the tests if South Korea and the United States ceased their annual Foal Eagle and Key Resolve military exercises.

The missile fired is thought to be an intermediate-range Musudan similar to this. Credit: BBC News

The Obama administration increased the size and scope of these drills. Obama adhered throughout his two terms to a policy of “diplomatic patience” regarding North Korea–attacking the regime rhetorically, working with other countries to apply more sanctions on the DPRK, deploying better defenses in Japan and South Korea, and refusing to engage with Pyongyang until it recommitted to ending its nuclear program in a “complete, verifiable, and irreversible” manner.

This policy failed to achieve these results and has allowed the DPRK to test several nuclear devices as well as improve its missile-launching capabilities to the point where North Korea is presumed to have the capacity to attack Japan, Guam, and other Asian targets with its short-, medium-, and intermediate-range nuclear-armed missiles.

The flight distance between North Korean and Japan is only slightly more than 1000 km.

The Trump administration has yet to undertake a comprehensive review of its Korean policy.

During the campaign, Trump made various comments about the Korean threat, at various points offering to meet with Kim to solve the issue personally, threatening the DPRK with destruction if it failed to curb its nuclear and missile program, and charging China with failing exercise its substantial influence to compel Pyongyang to cease its provocations.

After Kim announced the DPRK was preparing an ICBM launch, Trump tweeted that, “North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won’t happen!”

In remarks made earlier this month in Tokyo and Seoul during his first foreign visit as the new U.S. Defense Secretary, James Mattis warned that any DPRK nuclear test would be met by an “effective and overwhelming” response from the United States.

Mattis and his Asian counterparts renewed U.S. commitments to Asian security. For example, in Tokyo, Mattis noted how “the United States has invested in the alliance by deploying our most advanced capabilities to Japan, and by maintaining a robust force structure,” which would include advanced missile defenses and the newly deployed F-35Bs attached to the USMC Fighter Attack Squadron 121 at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, which has become the second operational F-35B base.

The Marines said the new F-35, which would replace the less capable F/A-18 Hornet and AV-8B Harrier II fighter jets now at Iwakuni, would bring the allies a “unique combination of stealth, cutting-edge radar and sensor technology, and electronic warfare systems” that would “bring all of the access and lethality capabilities of a fifth-generation fighter, a modern bomber, and an adverse-weather, all-threat environment air support platform.”

Furthermore, the Marines welcomed the F-35B’s “powerful sensor suite that fuses together several different sources and provides superior situational awareness to the pilot,” making the allies “capable of countering modern threat systems beyond what legacy aircraft were designed to handle.”

Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni also recently received the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye, equipped with the most advanced airborne radar in the world. The E-2D will reinforce the F-35Bs at the base as well as Japan’s own growing fleet of F-35A fighter jets.

Following this weekend’s North Korean missile launch, Trump consulted with his national security team as well as Abe. In a joint news conference, President Trump said that, “The United States of America stands behind Japan, its great ally, 100 percent.”

Since the missile test was not that of an ICBM or any new DPRK capability, President Trump can say that Pyongyang has not yet crossed his red line.

However, Kim Jung-un may mark the upcoming birthday of his deceased father, DPRK leader’s Kim Jong Il, with such a launch, or a nuclear weapons test, leaving the Trump administration precious few days to fashion an effective response.