Asia Pacific

Trump minimizes missile launches as North Korea opens door to more powerful tests

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday continued to downplay North Korea’s three tests of short-range ballistic missiles over eight days as Pyongyang’s Foreign Ministry appeared to open the door to the possibility of even more powerful tests in the near future.

Trump blasted out a series of tweets in which he said the recent spate of launches did not run counter to the vaguely worded, 1½-page joint statement he agreed to with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore during their landmark first summit in June last year.

“Kim Jong Un and North Korea tested 3 short range missiles over the last number of days,” Trump wrote. “These missiles tests are not a violation of our signed Singapore agreement, nor was there discussion of short range missiles when we shook hands.”

However, Trump noted that the missiles “may be a United Nations violation,” but tempered this with his view that Kim “does not want to disappoint me with a violation of trust” because there is “far too much for North Korea to gain” and because Kim has “far too much to lose.”

“I may be wrong, but I believe that … Kim has a great and beautiful vision for his country, and only the United States, with me as President, can make that vision come true. He will do the right thing because he is far too smart not to, and he does not want to disappoint his friend, President Trump!” he wrote.

The North’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said Saturday that Kim supervised a test-firing of the country’s new “large-caliber multiple launch guided rocket system” — apparently a reference to the missile launches early Friday — and “expressed great satisfaction” over the results.

U.N. Security Council resolutions ban North Korea from launching any ballistic missiles, and Tokyo has repeatedly voiced concern over shorter-range missiles capable of striking Japan, including some that can be fitted with nuclear warheads. Trump has in the past attempted to allay Japanese fears, saying that such weapons have been discussed in his meetings with Kim and that they would be included in any denuclearization deal with Pyongyang.

However, the latest tests — and the president’s choice to overlook the sanctions violations — were likely to rekindle concern in both Tokyo and Seoul that he could leave American allies in the lurch and that his primary concern is weapons capable of striking the contiguous U.S.

Approximately 28,500 and 50,000 U.S. military personnel are stationed in South Korea and Japan, respectively, as well as scores of other American residents in both countries.

Pyongyang has abided by a self-imposed moratorium on tests of longer-range missiles and nuclear bombs, largely in a move designed so as not to force Trump’s hand, observers say.

The U.S. president has repeatedly touted the lack of such tests as progress in his dealings with Pyongyang.

But the North has in recent weeks said it is rethinking whether to continue abiding by the halt, hinting that it could be conditional on how joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises scheduled for later this month play out.

On Saturday, an unidentified spokesman for North Korea’s Foreign Ministry criticized a statement released by the United Kingdom, France and Germany — following a closed U.N. Security Council (UNSC) briefing — that condemned the North’s recent ballistic activity as violations of U.N. sanctions and urged Pyongyang to engage in “meaningful negotiations” with the United States on eliminating its nuclear weapons.

The three countries had urged North Korea “to take concrete steps toward its complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization” and said international sanctions should remain in place until its nuclear and ballistic missile programs are dismantled.

In its statement, carried by KCNA, the Foreign Ministry said that the North never has and never will recognize the U.N. resolutions it sees as an “insult, disregard, and grave provocation” against its government.

In a thinly veiled reference to the possible restart of more powerful missile and nuclear tests, the statement noted that the North had “already suspended nuclear test and the test-fire of ICBM with the maximum patience for more than twenty months.”

But the UNSC was “groundlessly slandering” its development of conventional weapons “while turning blind eyes to the war exercises in South Korea and shipment of cutting-edge attack weapons into it,” a reference to Seoul’s introduction of U.S.-made F-35 stealth fighters, the spokesman said.

“This makes our patience with the U.N. disappear and turn into anger,” the statement said.

“Britain, France and Germany should realize before it is too late that their recent stupid words and deeds wouldn’t restrain the tension on the Korean Peninsula but serve as a catalyst for the escalation,” it added.

Asked about the North’s recent saber-rattling, a senior U.S. State Department official said on condition of anonymity that the launches were “unwelcome in this environment,” but noted that “provocations have always been part of the playbook of the North Koreans — provocations and also efforts to feel and find the seams between the interests of other international parties.”

Still, the senior official who spoke attempted to reassure nervous allies that getting the North to relinquish all of its weapons of mass destruction remained the U.S. goal.

“That’s what is clearly laid out in the U.N. Security Council resolutions, that all ballistic missiles, all weapons of mass destruction … that North Korea needs to rid itself of all of them,” the official said, according to a transcript. “That continues to be the view of the U.N. Security Council; it continues to be the view of the United States. And so whatever the strategy is — and we don’t know — we can’t read their minds — whatever it is, it’s not working.”

On the subject of working-level talks, the top U.S. official said the meetings would happen “soon,” but admitted that a time and location have yet to be set.

The U.S. said after Trump’s meeting with Kim at the truce village of Panmunjom on the border between the two Koreas in late June that the talks would begin sometime in July. That time frame has come and gone, but the official said the two sides were still in contact.

“Communication with North Korea happens — to some extent, it continues at the president’s level,” the official said, noting that Kim and Trump had communicated “even in the few weeks since the two leaders met for a brief meeting at Panmunjom.”

That communication, the official said, is also happening between Pyongyang and Stephen Biegun, Washington’s special representative to North Korea, and his team.

“And while we do not yet have a time and a location for the restart of working-level negotiations, it is a subject of discussion between the two sides, and the communications would suggest that both sides expect that to happen in the not too distant future,” the official said.

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