Kim Jong Un Seeks to Exploit U.S.-China Tensions With Missile Claims

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  • ‘North Korea has entered a marathon-like confrontation’
  • Nation says it successfully fired intercontinental missile

U.S. Says North Korea Tested an ICBM

When Kim Jong Un gave the order for what North Korea claims to be its first successful intercontinental ballistic missile test, he knew it would ruffle feathers in Washington and Beijing.

He may have even timed the launch of the missile, which Pyongyang dubbed the Hwasong-14, for maximum effect, ahead of the July 4 holiday in the U.S. and to throw a wrench into a planned meeting between President Donald Trump and Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping at the G-20 summit in Germany this week.

Whatever his motivations, Tuesday’s test -- which follows a volley of other missile launches in recent months -- shows Kim is not being slowed by international sanctions, Trump’s threats against him, or pressure from China. If anything he’s accelerating his efforts to acquire a bigger nuclear deterrent, with the ultimate prize a missile that can carry a nuclear-tipped warhead to the U.S. mainland.

That shows how difficult it will be to rein him in as he exploits differences between the world’s two biggest economies on how to handle the regime. Trump says China hasn’t done enough to keep Kim on the leash, while Beijing’s ambassador to the United Nations warned this week the "consequences would be disastrous" if Washington and Pyongyang fail to resume talks.

"The launch’s significance lies in prolonging the game, but not changing the game," said Yang Xiyu, a former Chinese negotiator in six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program. "We now know North Korea has entered a marathon-like confrontation with the international community,” said Yang, a senior researcher at the China Institute of International Studies. “Previously it was a middle-distance race."

The United Nations Security Council plans to hold a closed session on North Korea on Wednesday afternoon, after U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley requested an urgent meeting, a spokesman for the U.S. mission said.

Read more: North Korea’s claims of its first successful ICBM launch

Trump turned to Twitter after news of the launch, before North Korea’s claim the missile was an ICBM. He wrote: "Perhaps China will put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all!” In response, China Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Beijing had been "indispensable" in pressuring Kim.

The U.S. State Department is working with interagency partners on a detailed assessment of the launch, spokeswoman Heather Nauert said on Twitter. U.S. national security, military and diplomatic officials were meeting Tuesday to discuss options if it’s determined that North Korea did conduct an ICBM test, CNN reported, citing unidentified administration officials.

Reclusive North Korea has for decades relied on its weapons programs as a deterrent to outsiders. Kim is also no different from his father and grandfather -- both leaders before him -- in using his military clout as a bedrock for his internal power. Encouraging a personality cult around the Kim dynasty helps him keep a grip on generals at home and foster public obedience.

North Korea has called its weapons program a "precious sword of justice” against invaders. It has drawn comparisons with former dictatorships in Iraq and Libya, arguing that Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi fell because they gave up on developing nuclear arms.

The regime has also used provocations to secure concessions from neighbors in the form of aid. China, the main economic lifeline of North Korea, has been reluctant to press too hard in case it leads to the collapse of the regime and chaos on its border.

Read more: Options for dealing with North Korea

Tensions are rising between Trump and Xi over a broader range of issues. In a call with the U.S. president this week, Xi complained about a "negative" turn in ties. The U.S. has in recent days announced a $1.3 billion arms sale to Taiwan, published a report ranking China among the world’s worst human-trafficking offenders and called on Beijing to let ailing Noble Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo seek cancer treatment abroad.

North Korea is likely to dominate the Xi-Trump talks in Hamburg. Trump has said all options including military force are available against Pyongyang, though its neighbors warn a strike could be disastrous for North Asia. South Korea’s new government favors talks to bring Kim to heel, also putting it potentially at odds with Trump’s administration.

"The message North Korea is sending is simple: Whatever you do, our capability is getting greater and greater and we are not changing our policy," said Andrew Gilholm, director of analysis for North Asia at Control Risks Group. "You are going to have to change yours.”

Following Tuesday’s missile launch, North Korea bragged it was a "full-fledged nuclear power" with ICBMs that can hit any part of the world. "The DPRK will fundamentally put an end to the U.S. nuclear war threat and blackmail," it said, using an abbreviation for the nation’s formal title.

Kim’s actions don’t come without risks. Even Xi may have limits to his patience with the regime, especially if he risks appearing weak. And under Trump the U.S. has become more vocal about the potential for a military clash.

“For Xi, North Korea is an affront to his image as a great leader on the world stage,” said Gilholm. “It is humiliating when he’s being ignored by a 30-something tin pot dictator just over the border. So China’s patience wearing thinner. There is a real chance they may squeeze harder than before.”

Still, Zhang Liangui, a professor at the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Party School, said that Kim made a "classy move" to manipulate relations between the major powers.

"The leaders from both sides need to be very careful to not let North Korea manage their relationship," he said. “The ICBM launch could make an enormous impact on China-U.S. relations and even cause severe damage.”

— With assistance by Keith Zhai, Jim Silver, Jennifer Jacobs, and Kambiz Foroohar

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