Asia Pacific / Politics

Trump plays down North Korean missile tests, says launches were not breach of trust

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

U.S. President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly touted the halt of North Korean missile tests as one of his top foreign policy achievements, has played down the significance of leader Kim Jong Un’s recent decision to test short-range missiles.

The North’s second missile launch in five days on Thursday — part of what it said were military drills designed to bolster the nuclear-armed country’s “various long-range strike means” — was widely seen as a move to heap more pressure on Trump amid stalled nuclear talks with the U.S.

“They’re short-range and I don’t consider that a breach of trust at all. And, you know, at some point I may. But at this point no,” Trump said in an interview with the Politico website. “These were short-range missiles and very standard stuff. Very standard.”

Trump added that he might eventually lose faith in his friendly relationship with Kim.

“I mean it’s possible that at some point I will, but right now not at all,” he said.

The launches Thursday, which the U.S. and South Korean militaries acknowledged were short-range missiles that flew 420 and 270 km (260 and 167 miles), would violate United Nations sanctions resolutions banning the use of ballistic missile technology by the North.

Those weapons were believed to be versions of Russia’s Iskander ballistic missile.

The Iskander has several variations, and details of Pyongyang’s version were not known. But the solid-fuel missiles can fly as far as 500 km, putting the entire Korean Peninsula within range.

Experts say that due to its relatively low peak altitude, an Iskander-type model could also effectively neutralize the advanced U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile defense system, and its launches are nearly impossible to prevent because of their mobility.

Thursday’s launches followed a similar drill led by Kim on May 4, when the North fired several rounds of unidentified short-range “projectiles” into the Sea of Japan that the U.S. later referred to as “rockets and missiles.” Those launches were the country’s first since November 2017.

Prior to the two recent launches, the North’s last known missile test came more than 500 days ago, when it test-fired a Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which experts believe is capable of striking much, if not all, of the continental United States.

Pyongyang informally adopted a freeze on missile tests from then on, and in April last year declared a “suspension” of nuclear and long-range missile launches.

A short-range test would not violate its unilateral suspension.

The second summit between Trump and Kim, held in Vietnam in February, collapsed without a deal due to large differences over the scope of North Korea’s denuclearization and potential sanctions relief by the U.S.

Nuclear talks between the two countries have languished in the months since, with North Korea delivering criticism of Washington’s position in the negotiations and Kim setting an end-of-the-year deadline for progress.

A senior North Korean official warned late last month of an “undesired consequence” if Washington does not adjust its policy by the deadline.

“Our determination for denuclearization remains unchanged, and when the time comes, we will put it into practice. But, this is possible only under the condition that the U.S. changes their current method of calculation and formulates a new stand,” North Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui, a key figure in negotiations with the United States, was quoted by the North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency as saying.

At a meeting of the North’s rubber-stamp parliament in April, Kim said he is willing to meet with Trump for a third time if Washington comes to the table with the “correct posture” — but laid down his deadline “for a bold decision from the U.S.”

Andrew O’Neil, an expert on North Korea and a professor at Griffith University in Australia, said he believes that Trump is hoping to avoid any confrontation that might upset the fragile lull in tensions he claims to have brokered.

“My strong sense is that Trump realizes that Pyongyang has sought to play him, and despite having John Bolton urging a tougher posture, the president is content to continue denying North Korea is doing anything destabilizing until he actually is forced to confront the issue in the event of a nuclear or ICBM test,” O’Neil said.

This stance has more or less been confirmed by past remarks that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has made in which he framed threats from North Korea as threats to the U.S., seemingly ignoring allies Japan and South Korea, he added.

“Tokyo and Seoul should be very concerned about Trump and Pompeo’s discounting of North Korean short-range testing because it simply reinforces the point that unless the continental U.S. is threatened, Washington is unlikely to act decisively in confronting North Korea,” O’Neill said. “This, combined with Trump’s fixation on ‘making allies pay’ for the privilege of U.S. extended deterrence, means that policymakers in Tokyo and Seoul have every reason to be anxious about North Korean escalation that stops short of a threat” to the United States.

Extended deterrence refers to the U.S. policy of providing for the security of its allies by threatening a nuclear response in the event of an enemy attack.

As for what to expect from the North, Malcolm Davis, a senior defense analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute think tank in Canberra, said that Pompeo’s remarks had shifted the red line to enable it to test longer-range missile systems in the coming weeks and months.

“The message is that so long as they don’t test an ICBM, or potentially an IRBM (intermediate range ballistic missile) that could reach Guam, then the U.S. won’t respond,” Davis said.

“So, expect the North Koreans to test more short and medium-range missile capabilities, such as the Rodong, which has a range of 1,250 km — that’s certainly enough to reach all of Japan.”