North Korean Nuclear Ambitions to Be Defining Issue for Trump

Updated on
  • South Korea says missile likely an improved mid-range version
  • Launch came as President Trump met Japan’s Abe in Florida

N. Korea Launches Missile Test During Abe, Trump Meet

President Donald Trump will be forced to deal with ongoing threats from North Korea as that country gains the ability to threaten the continental U.S. with a nuclear strike, an official said on Sunday, hours after Pyongyang fired a ballistic missile into nearby seas.

North Korea will probably develop its ballistic missile technology enough to pair with its nuclear weapons to reach the U.S. during Trump’s tenure, said Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Either the U.S. gets the Chinese to help increase pressure on North Korea through sanctions, or Trump will have “a truly consequential decision,” Haass said on CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS” on Sunday.

QuickTake North Korea's Nukes

“Trump is going to have to face a truly fateful decision about whether we’re prepared to live with that, a North Korea that has that capability against us, or we are going to use military force one way or another to destroy their nuclear missile capability,” Haass said.

South Korea’s military said the missile fired on Sunday was believed to be an improved version of the mid-range Musudan model. It was launched at 7:55 a.m. local time from North Korea’s northwest, the same region where the regime fired a Musudan missile in October. The projectile flew 500 kilometers (310 miles) into its East Sea, also known as the Sea of Japan, South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff said in a text message.

Joint Rebuke

The launch drew a joint rebuke from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Trump during Abe’s visit to the U.S., as well as condemnation from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Russia.

Abe, speaking at a briefing late Saturday with Trump at the president’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, said the missile test “can absolutely not be tolerated.” He called on North Korea to fully comply with United Nations Security Council resolutions. The launch was the first provocation by North Korea since Trump took office on Jan. 20.

Trump has vowed to prevent the country from developing the capability to strike the U.S. with a missile. “The United States of America stands behind Japan, its great ally, 100 percent,” he said on Saturday. Neither Abe nor Trump took questions.

The U.S. Strategic Command said in a statement that Pyongyang launched a medium- or intermediate-range ballistic missile that posed no threat to North America. South Korea’s presidential security adviser Kim Kwan Jin called U.S. counterpart Michael Flynn after the launch, the Blue House said in a statement. They agreed to cooperate on ways to deter North Korea, it said. 

Message Sent

The new president is sending a message of “strength and solidarity” with Japan in response to North Korea’s test firing, and the provocation shows the need to bolster the U.S. military as Trump has promised, White House aide Stephen Miller said.

“President Trump is displaying the strength of America to the whole world,” Miller said on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday. “And it’s why we’re going to begin a process of rebuilding our depleted defense capabilities on a scale we have not seen in generations.”

Kim Jong Un’s regime has accelerated North Korea’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons and missiles that can strike the U.S. and its allies in Asia. In response, the U.S. plans to deploy a missile defense system known as Thaad in South Korea, a move opposed by China, North Korea’s primary ally.

Abe Reset

The missile test came amid signs that Trump, having previously chided Japan for what he said was an insufficient contribution to the cost of housing U.S. troops there, wants to reset his relationship with Abe. While Pyongyang may not have timed the launch during Abe’s visit specifically to send a signal to the new U.S. administration, it allowed Abe and Trump to present a collective response.

Even as he criticizes Japan for its trade and currency policies, Trump promised during his meeting with Abe in Washington on Feb. 10 that the countries’ military alliance covers East China Sea islands that are disputed with China. That suggests a greater recognition that the U.S. needs Japan’s assistance in North Asia for two things: to act as a buffer against China, and to help pressure Kim over his nuclear ambitions.

To read about Trump’s options for stopping North Korean missiles, click here.

The range of the missile fired on Sunday, if confirmed, is greater than an intermediate-range Musudan missile that North Korea fired in 2016, according to Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at the Sejong Institute.

“The North’s improvement in missile capability shown today will be met by the Trump administration’s strong opposition and will likely accelerate the Thaad deployment in South Korea,” Cheong said. “That would, of course, trigger a backlash by China, which will likely retaliate against South Korea further.”

Past Action

North Korea fired at least 25 projectiles last year, according to the UN, which bans it from pursuing ballistic missile technology because it could be used to deliver nuclear warheads. Pyongyang also detonated two nuclear devices in 2016.

Kim said on Jan. 1 that his country was in the “last stage” of preparations to test-fire an intercontinental ballistic missile, leading Trump to write on Twitter, “It won’t happen!” Trump didn’t give specifics of how he’d stop Kim’s missile development.

The UN Security Council unanimously passed a fresh resolution in late November that tightened sanctions on North Korea, including cutting the country’s coal exports, after the regime conducted its fifth nuclear test in September. Australia, which co-sponsored the resolution, will consider further sanctions, it said in a statement on Sunday.

Japanese Defense Minister Tomomi Inada told reporters on Sunday in comments carried by NHK that the ministry will continue to gather information about the latest test. Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said Japan would look to strengthen cooperation on information sharing with the U.S. and South Korea, Kyodo reported.