The United States has said it would resort to using military force, if necessary, to defend itself and its allies — including Japan — against North Korea’s increasingly threatening nuclear and missile programs.
In a speech at an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council held Wednesday in New York following Pyongyang’s successful launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley said the “actions by North Korea made the world a more dangerous place” and showed that it “does not want to be part of a peaceful world.”
“The United States does not seek conflict. In fact, we seek to avoid it,” Haley said. “We seek only the peaceful denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and an end to the threatening actions by North Korea.”
But Haley blasted the ICBM test as “a clear and sharp military escalation” that threatened the U.S. and its top Asian allies.
“The North Korean regime openly states that its missiles are intended to deliver nuclear weapons to strike cities in the United States, South Korea and Japan,” she said. “And now it has a greater capacity to do so.”
Pyongyang said the missile, known as a Hwasong-14, flew 933 km, hitting an altitude of 2,802 km, and had a flight time of 39 minutes. This corresponded roughly with estimates by U.S., Japanese and South Korean officials. Analysts said that if the missile had been launched on a standard instead of “lofted” trajectory, it could have flown a maximum range of 6,700 km.
The North said the ICBM, “capable of carrying a large-sized heavy nuclear warhead,” could strike targets “any place in the world.” It also declared that it had mastered crucial miniaturization and re-entry technology for the missile’s warhead.
Analysts, however, remain skeptical about those claims, but said it wouldn’t be long before they had reached such a goal.
“It probably won’t take them more than a year or two to learn how to operate this missile reliably and accurately in combat, and to incorporate whatever design modifications or performance enhancements” are needed, aerospace engineer John Schilling wrote on the influential North Korea-watching blog 38 North.
Still, Haley hinted, the missile success had presented the U.S. and its allies with a clear and present danger.
“The United States is prepared to use the full range of our capabilities to defend ourselves and our allies,” she said. “One of our capabilities lies with our considerable military forces. We will use them if we must, but we prefer not to have to go in that direction.”
However, she added, the isolated country’s actions were “quickly closing off the possibility of a diplomatic solution.”
Haley’s highly charged remarks came just a day after the top U.S. military commander in South Korea insinuated that Seoul and Washington were willing to go to war if provoked.
The unusually blunt statement by Gen. Vincent Brooks was released after the U.S. and South Korean militaries fired off a volley of missiles simulating a precision strike against the North Korean leadership.
“Self restraint, which is a choice, is all that separates armistice and war,” Brooks said. “As this alliance missile live fire shows, we are able to change our choice when so ordered by our alliance national leaders.
“It would be a grave mistake for anyone to believe anything to the contrary.”
South Korea hosts 28,500 U.S. troops as part of the two countries’ security alliance. North and South Korea are technically still at war because the 1950-53 Korean War ended in an armistice and not a formal peace treaty.
Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, meanwhile, said that she held a 20-minute teleconference Wednesday night with U.S. defense chief James Mattis, where the two agreed to further bolster U.S. and Japanese deterrence capabilities against the North.
Inada quoted Mattis as assuring Tokyo that the U.S. commitment to extended deterrence to protect Japan remains “unshakable.”
Inada also said that Tokyo believes it to be “highly likely” that the latest launch by Pyongyang was of an ICBM, citing its possible flying distance of more than 5,500 km, the minimum range for the classification.
Haley’s remarks echoed a statement by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson a day earlier urging “global action … to stop a global threat.”
She called the North’s breakneck push to improve its weapons program “a threat to all nations in the region and beyond,” adding that Washington had “other methods of addressing those who threaten us and of addressing those who supply the threats” — a thinly veiled reference to China, the North’s main patron.
“We have great capabilities in the area of trade,” she said, noting that she had spoken with U.S. President Donald Trump “repeatedly” about such an approach.
Trump had pinned much of his administration’s North Korea strategy on China doing more to corral Pyongyang, though he has in recent days distanced himself somewhat from this policy.
“There are countries that are allowing, even encouraging trade with North Korea, in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions,” Haley said.
“Such countries would also like to continue their trade arrangements with the United States,” she said. “That’s not going to happen. Our attitude on trade changes when countries do not take international security threats seriously.”
Vowing to do more to rein in the North, Haley announced that the U.S. will bring before the U.N. Security Council a fresh resolution in the coming days “that raises the international response in a way that is proportionate to North Korea’s escalation.”
She declined to give details, but noted that if the council is united, the international community can cut off major sources of hard currency to North Korea, halt oil to their military and weapons programs, increase air and maritime restrictions, and hold senior officials more accountable.
“If we act together we can still prevent a catastrophe,” Haley said. “We can rid the world of a great threat. If we fail to act in a serious way there will be a different response.”
The North Korean issue is also expected to be one of the top agenda items at this week’s Group of 20 summit in Germany, where Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was to meet his American and South Korean counterparts for trilateral talks.
Analysts said it was likely to be a raucous affair.
“North Korea’s salutatory message on U.S. Independence Day pits the leaders of the U.S., South Korea, Japan and China into rhetorical Wrestlemania on the sidelines of the G-20,” said Sung-Yoon Lee, a Korea expert at The Fletcher School at Tufts University in the U.S.
“Washington favors delegating North Korea policy to China and will complain that China is not doing enough to rein Pyongyang in,” he added. “Beijing favors the status quo and will counsel patience and dialogue. Seoul favors appeasement and will argue it needs to engage Kim Jong Un if only to de-escalate. Tokyo, out of fear of isolation, will lean on Washington to toughen up and hit Pyongyang with devastating sanctions.”
Tomohiro Osaki contributed to this report
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