North Korea Missile Fails But Trump Stands Ready to Respond

  • Ballistic missile explodes four or five seconds after launch
  • Trump’s ‘very strong’ preference is for China to take lead

Abe Urges China to Take Bigger Role on North Korea

North Korea’s failed ballistic missile launch hasn’t prompted the Trump administration to deviate from its plans for dealing with the Pyongyang regime, even as the flubbed test eased the risk of imminent retaliation.

President Donald Trump is willing to consider “kinetic” military action, including a sudden strike, to counteract North Korea’s series of destabilizing actions, said two people familiar with the White House’s thinking.

Initial reports indicate the projectile launched on Sunday was a medium-range missile, not an intercontinental ballistic missile, and failed after about four or five seconds, a White House foreign policy adviser told reporters. While the U.S. has a range of options to deal with North Korea, it won’t need to expend any resources to respond in this case, the adviser said.

Mike Pence and Karen Pence during a visit to the Seoul National Cemetery on April 16.

Photographer: Lee Young-ho/Pool via Bloomberg

Tensions between Washington and North Korea have escalated in recent weeks. Trump diverted warships to the region amid speculation that Kim Jong Un’s regime would conduct a nuclear or intercontinental ballistic missile test to mark April 15, the isolated country’s most important holiday. Still, the long-term risk remains: Trump has said military options are on the table and threatened to act unilaterally if China -- North Korea’s main ally and benefactor -- fails to do more to curb its neighbor’s activities.

Graphic on progress of North Korea’s nuclear program

Trump’s very strong preference is for China to take the lead on dealing with North Korea, said the people familiar with the White House’s strategy. But the president is unafraid to order military action, said the people, who asked not to be named because the discussions are private.

So far this month, the U.S. has bombed Syria in response to a chemical attack on civilians that it said was carried out by President Bashar al-Assad, and dropped the largest non-nuclear bomb it has ever used in an strike on Islamic State positions in a remote area of Afghanistan.

At the same time, Trump’s strategy on North Korea isn’t exactly a departure from long-standing U.S. policy. He isn’t particularly interested in toppling Kim’s regime and isn’t looking to force a reunification of the two Koreas, the person said. He instead wants to push for their long-term cooperation.

Mapping Scenarios

Trump’s national security team had already thought through how the U.S. would react to various actions North Korea might take this weekend as it marked the birthday of founder Kim Il-sung, the grandfather of the current leader. So when the medium-range missile test failed right after launch early Sunday morning local time, Trump was informed immediately by deputy national security advisor K. T. McFarland and decided to downplay it, according to people familiar with events.

It was Trump’s decision that the administration’s initial response would come from Defense Secretary James Mattis, who issued a 22-word statement Saturday night.

China’s State Councilor Yang Jiechi and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson exchanged views on the situation on the Korean Peninsula by phone on Sunday, China’s foreign ministry said, without giving more details.

Any U.S. military strike risks leading to a war that may devastate South Korea and Japan, two American allies in striking range of retaliatory attacks. China has backed North Korea since the peninsula was last at war in the 1950s, in part to prevent having an American ally on its border.

Pence Visit

Vice President Mike Pence arrived in Osan, south of Seoul, hours after North Korea’s test -- the first stop on a previously planned 10-day trip to Asia that will also take him to Japan, Indonesia and Australia. Pence immediately traveled to the National Cemetery, where he placed a wreath in honor of South Korea’s war veterans.

“This morning’s provocation from the North is just the latest reminder of the risks each one of you face every day,” Pence told a gathering of U.S. soldiers and Koreans at a dinner in Seoul.

On ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday, National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster said the U.S., with its allies and partners and with Chinese leadership are developing “a range of options” against North Korea’s “provocative and destabilizing and threatening” behavior.

U.S. and South Korean military officials are conducting further analysis of the missile launch, which took place at Sinpo on North Korea’s eastern coastline. Japan’s defense ministry will work closely with the U.S. and South Korea to gather and analyze information on North Korea, it said on its website.

North Korea’s activities “are a threatening demonstration against the entire world,” South Korea’s foreign ministry said in a statement. “We have to warn again that if this leads to a strategic provocation of a nuclear or ICBM test, the North will face strong punitive measures that it will find hard to endure.”

Warship Fleet

Kim’s regime has test-fired ballistic missiles five times this year in his quest to develop a device that can carry a nuclear warhead to North America. He’s launched dozens of projectiles and conducted three nuclear tests since coming to power after his father’s death in 2011, and claimed in January to be almost ready to test-fire an ICBM.

As the brinkmanship increased, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Friday urged all parties “to stop provoking and threatening each other and not to make the situation irretrievable.”

Kim showed off a range of long-range missiles at an elaborate military parade on Saturday, including submarine-launched ballistic missiles for the first time and what appeared to be a new ICBM, South Korea’s Yonhap News reported. In 2012, North Korea unveiled long-range missiles that some arms analysts dismissed as fake.

‘Annihilating Strike’

“If the U.S. provokes recklessly, the revolutionary forces will take an annihilating strike,” Choe Ryong Hae, a senior regime official, said in a speech at the parade. North Korea is ready for a nuclear or full-scale war if the U.S. wants it, he added.

North Korea Missile Launches, Nuclear Detonations: Timeline

Two new ICBM launchers were the most striking weapons on display at the military parade, according to Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. It also suggested that North Korea has two different ICBMs under development in addition to the KN-08, a liquid-fueled road-mobile missile capable of reaching the U.S.

“We saw more new systems for the first time in this parade than ever before,” Lewis said. “The North Koreans are committed to deploying a credible nuclear deterrent that is capable of deterring an attack and ‘repelling’ an invasion.”

While the White House said Pence will mostly be dealing with business issues on a 10-day swing through Asia, administration officials said Thursday that he will also discuss economic sanctions and military options for North Korea if a provocation occurs. He will meet with Acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn, who is looking after the South Korean government before an election to choose a successor to the ousted Park Geun-hye.

— With assistance by Tsuyoshi Inajima, and Michelle Jamrisko

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