National / Politics

North Korea missile test delivers early challenge to Trump and Abe

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

North Korea said Monday it “successfully” test-fired a new type of medium- to long-range ballistic missile the previous day, presenting the administration of President Donald Trump with an early foreign policy challenge and testing his commitment to U.S. allies in Asia.

The test of what North Korea called a Pukguksong-2 “new type” of “strategic weapon system” was overseen by the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, early Sunday, state-run media said, as Trump met with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Florida.

The launch, the first such test since Trump was sworn into office Jan. 20, saw the missile fly about 500 km (300 miles) into the Sea of Japan. It was conducted using a so-called lofting technique, where the missile is launched at a high angle. North Korean state-run media said this was in order to take “the security of the neighboring countries into consideration.”

The North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency said the new surface-to-surface ballistic missile is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead and is propelled by a solid-fuel engine. It said the test proved “the reliability and security” of the new mobile launching system, the solid fuel that was used and the missile’s guidance and control features, calling it an upgraded, extended-range version of its submarine-launched ballistic missile that was successfully tested last August.

KCNA quoted Kim as expressing “great satisfaction over the possession of another powerful nuclear attack means which adds to the tremendous might of the country.”

“Now our rocket industry has radically turned into high thrust solid fuel-powered engine from liquid fuel rocket engine and rapidly developed into a development- and creation-oriented industry, not just copying samples,” Kim said. “Thanks to the development of the new strategic weapon system, our People’s Army is capable of performing its strategic duties most accurately and rapidly in any space: under waters or on the land.”

Joshua Pollack, editor of the U.S.-based Nonproliferation Review and a leading expert on nuclear and missile proliferation, called the new developments startling.

“This is a very big deal,” Pollack said. “A solid-fueled missile involves a much smaller fleet of support vehicles and can be prepared for launch much more quickly. It makes hunting down a deployed missile much harder, and it’s not an easy thing to begin with. This system could supplement or replace the liquid-fueled Scuds and Rodongs that target South Korea and Japan.”

With this successful test, Pollack said, “we can probably expect them to move on to more powerful solid-fueled missiles in due course.”

In addition to quicker launches, solid-fuel engines boost the power of ballistic missiles, giving them greater range.

The KCNA report also drew attention to the missile launcher itself, noting that Sunday’s test was also a tryout for its indigenously built “new type missile launching truck.”

Pollack called photos of the launch vehicle released shortly after the test “striking.”

“The launch vehicle is very striking,” he said. “To the best of my knowledge, no treaded missile launcher has been built anywhere in decades. This seems to indicate that they have overcome export controls and sanctions that have made it more difficult to acquire the heavy vehicles from Belarus or China that they have used in the past for these purposes. North Korea already builds tanks and self-propelled artillery with treads, so it is perhaps natural that they would rely on that approach.”

In Tokyo on Monday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Japan, South Korea and the U.S. requested urgent U.N. Security Council discussions on the test, with a meeting expected Monday afternoon in New York.

“We will demand North Korea to abide by the past resolution and we will also discuss further sanctions,” Suga said.

North Korea is barred under United Nations resolutions from using ballistic missile technology, but six sets of U.N. sanctions since Pyongyang’s first nuclear test in 2006 have failed to rein in its drive for atomic weapons.

Last year the North conducted two nuclear tests, including its most powerful to date, and more than 20 missile launches in its quest to refine a nuclear weapons system capable of hitting the U.S. mainland.

Prior to Sunday’s launch, the North’s two most recent missile tests — both failures — had taken place in October. Both were of intermediate-range Musudan missiles, U.S. and South Korean officials have said.

While the Pukguksong-2 has a shorter range than the Musudan, the Musudan is liquid-fueled.

Kim said in his New Year’s Day address that the country was close to launching an ICBM — remarks widely seen as a veiled threat that the hermit nation was close to mastering the technology needed to strike the continental U.S.

In response to the ICBM claim, Trump vowed last month to halt the North’s push, writing on Twitter that Pyongyang’s development of a nuclear missile capable of hitting the U.S. “won’t happen.” The new U.S. leader, however, did not provide any details of how he would rein in Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs.

During a hastily organized news conference after playing golf with Trump in Florida on Sunday, Abe called the North’s latest test “absolutely intolerable.”

But, perhaps underscoring the new U.S. leader’s lack of foreign policy chops, Trump spoke only briefly at the news conference, saying: “I just want everybody to understand, and fully know, that the United States of America is behind Japan, our great ally, 100 percent.”

Experts said the timing of the North’s test of the new administration, which many observers had anticipated, took Trump’s team by surprise.

“Indeed, I’m sure Trump is not used to playing 27 or whatever holes of golf and then heading to the clubhouse for an impromptu stare down via press conference with North Korea,” said James Schoff, a senior fellow with the Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment.

“I think it did catch them a little off-guard, in that everyone was probably very focused on the remaining logistics related to Abe’s visit, but the White House overall (and State and Department of Defense) has been expecting a North Korean missile launch in February or March.”

Still, added Schoff, “it seemed to me that Trump’s team was thin on the ground and not well prepared to deal with an international statement. They deferred to Abe’s team and let him handle it. There was no substance to Trump’s statement, and he should have mentioned South Korea too. It was poorly handled, but that is what we come to expect from the White House now, and the fact that this happened when Trump was away from Washington — and the bureaucratic support network — shined a light on that shortcoming.”

While Trump was hit for foundering during his first foreign policy test, Abe received plaudits for stepping up his game.

“The timing was perfect politically for Prime Minister Abe,” said Sheila Smith, a senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “How better to demonstrate that the Trump administration is there for Tokyo than to have Trump himself line up with the prime minister and say the “U.S. is behind Japan 100 percent”?

Smith said the summit “produced all the right language for Japan,” and that it is now up to Tokyo and Washington to push forward a response to the North Korean provocations — including discussion of military roles, missions and capabilities.