U.S. President Donald Trump may not mind North Korea’s repeated tests of short-range missiles, including some believed capable of striking Japan, but his not-so-begrudging acceptance of the North’s actions is sending an unmistakable message to Washington’s Asian allies: America really does come first.
The latest volley of tests came Saturday, making for a total of at least 11 apparent ballistic missile launches overseen by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un this year and eight in the last five weeks. The pace comes close to matching the frantic speed of testing in 2017, when Trump and Kim traded insults and threats.
“I’m not happy about it, but then again he’s not in violation of an agreement,” Trump said Sunday, after the latest launches. He was apparently referring to a deal between the two leaders that ostensibly prohibits the firing of longer-range ballistic missiles.
Strikingly, the comment was made while sitting beside the leader of possibly the United States’ closest ally in Asia, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, during a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Group of Seven summit in France.
“I discussed long-range ballistic and that he cannot do and he hasn’t been doing it. … He has done short-range, much more standard missiles, a lot of people are testing those missiles, not just him,” the U.S. president said.
“We are in the world of missiles, folks, whether you like it or not,” he added.
But contrary to two years ago, when Trump threatened to rain “fire and fury” on the North over its nuclear and missile tests, observers say the U.S. president’s de facto blessing of this year’s short-range tests is in effect telling Japan as well as South Korea, another top Asian ally, that they are expendable.
It’s a message he’s sending to the tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers and expatriates there, too.
So far, Trump administration and defense officials have remained mum despite growing concerns over the president’s stance.
The Pentagon did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the issue and U.S. Forces Korea referred questions to the State Department.
Asked Tuesday when the president will say, “enough is enough,” and if he plans on “taking a stronger stance on North Korea,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had little to say beyond the White House’s standard line.
“The president’s taken the strongest stance in an awfully long time on North Korea,” Pompeo said in an interview. “We didn’t get to this situation in the 2½ years that President Trump’s been in office.”
The message has reinforced existing security concerns in South Korea and Japan that Washington may not come to their defense at critical moments, especially if U.S. territory becomes vulnerable to a North Korean nuclear attack.
Negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington for the North to relinquish its nukes have been stalled since late June, when Trump held an impromptu meeting with Kim at the Demilitarized Zone at the two Koreas’ border. That meeting ended with the two promising to return to the talks in the near future, but a restart has yet to happen.
Rather, Pyongyang has delivered repeated rebukes of Washington, Seoul and Tokyo, focusing especially on joint military exercises between the U.S. and South, and leaving the Trump team waiting for word of the talks’ resumption as increasingly sophisticated missiles continue to tumble into the Sea of Japan.
“The recent development in North Korean missile technology certainly puts Japanese policymakers on notice, and Trump seeming to brush off the concern in his attempt to prioritize the resumption of denuclearization [talks] aggravates Tokyo’s anxiety,” said Yuki Tatsumi, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center think tank who previously worked at the Japanese Embassy in Washington.
That anxiety was on full display when Abe expressed a view that deviated from Trump’s on Sunday, calling the latest test “extremely regrettable” and repeating Tokyo’s mantra that the launches are clear violations of U.N. rules.
Trump, looking to placate his golf buddy, shook off the remarks.
“I can understand how the prime minister of Japan feels. I mean, I can. It’s different. But, I mean, I can understand that fully,” he said.
Abe has long pushed Trump to include in the denuclearization negotiations the shorter-range weapons that put Japan in the North’s crosshairs, and Trump has obliged, at least for now.
But it remains uncertain if he will continue to do so as his focus shifts to what he considers the only real threat under America First: the intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that can hit the United States.
“This was the worst-case scenario for Tokyo — Trump deals with North Korea, only focusing on its nuclear program and ICBMs, leaving Japan still exposed to North Korea’s short- and medium-range missiles,” said Tatsumi.
The North already has stockpiles of Rodong medium-range ballistic missiles, which have a range of 1,200 kilometer to 1,500 km, and Scud-ER (extended-range) weapons that can travel 800 km to 1,000 km. That puts large chunks of Japan in striking distance, a fact the regime has trumpeted and demonstrated on multiple occasions.
But when Pyongyang, after 16½ months of relative silence since its November 2017 ICBM test, restarted its latest rounds of weapons tests on April 17 — firing a “new-type tactical guided weapon” believed to be a rocket-launched projectile that flew so low South Korean and U.S. military radars didn’t detect it — it was clear that the North had a plan.
This continued, perhaps even more ominously, with the May 4 and 9 launches of short-range missiles, including one that resembled a nuclear-capable Russian Iskander missile.
The weapons tests abruptly ended in June as Trump held his meeting with Kim. But in the ensuing weeks, the North has demonstrated a spate of advanced new weaponry and missiles, with some traveling just far enough to hit virtually all of the South and potentially even parts of Japan.
While the distances paled in comparison with the North’s tests in 2017 — which included two intermediate-range ballistic missiles that overflew Japan and one ICBM that experts believe could hit all of the contiguous U.S. — Pyongyang has, in effect showcased ever-improving new capabilities for safeguarding its isolated regime.
Perhaps the most fearsome of these has been the presumed Islander clone, known as a KN-23, which one test in July showed was able to fly as far as 690 km (430 miles) — putting South Korea and areas of Japan at risk. The missile is designed to be mobile, which makes it easier to hide, and fly at a height and speed that makes it hard for U.S. interceptor systems to shoot down, weapons experts have said.
“In terms of the capabilities of this missile, it’s clearly got Iskander-like capability,” said Malcolm Davis, a senior defense analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute think tank in Canberra. “The main advantage of this system is that it is designed to circumvent missile-defense systems such as Patriot and THAAD.”
A U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile system is currently deployed to South Korea.
By being able to travel around 700 km, “that would make U.S. bases in [the] ROK and southern Japan within range, and if U.S. and Japanese [ballistic missile defenses] can’t defeat it, that adds a new level of vulnerability … and a greater threat” from North Korea, Davis said, using the acronym for the South’s formal name, the Republic of Korea.
Indeed, Japanese Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya confirmed this view on Tuesday, saying that Pyongyang appears to be developing warheads to penetrate the ballistic missile shield defending Japan — pointing in particular to the latest launches’ irregular trajectories.
Japan and the United States have Aegis destroyers deployed in the Sea of Japan, armed with SM-3 interceptor missiles designed to destroy warheads in space. Tokyo also plans to build two land-based Aegis batteries, called Aegis Ashore, to bolster its ballistic missile shield.
Those defense systems, however, are designed to counter projectiles on regular and therefore, predictable, trajectories, and any variation in flight path would make interception trickier.
Japan also employs the ground-based Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) missile interceptor, which is said to be capable of intercepting an enemy missile within a radius of less than 20 km and is designed to strike incoming missiles in the lower atmosphere.
Markus Schiller, a rocketry expert with the German company ST Analytics, said that while speed is “not that much of a problem” for the Patriot system, “if an intercept actually succeeds is another question.”
“You never have 100 percent hit-and-kill probability,” Schiller said.
“However, if you are crossing a site at an altitude of 25 km or above, this would be too high for the Patriot to reach the target. And it seems that SM-3 and THAAD would have a problem there, too, because that would be too low for both SM-3 and THAAD to kick in,” he said.
North Korea is believed to be testing these weapons before it resumes diplomatic talks with Washington, and may conduct further weapons tests this month, defense officials from the U.S. and its allies have said.
Masashi Murano, a Japan Chair Fellow at the Hudson Institute think tank, called the North’s “diversification of delivery systems” while denuclearization talks remain deadlocked “bad news” for Japan and its allies.
“In this regard, not only President Trump, but also Prime Minister Abe’s reaction is not appropriate,” he said. “Abe has repeatedly said, ‘It does not immediately affect the security of Japan.’ All of these missiles, even those with a short range that North Korea launches every day, are built into a layered escalation ladder and everything affects the deterrence strategy.”
Murano said that although Abe is attempting to “read the mood” of Trump “and not speak out against it,” that approach was “frustrating for Japan’s defense officials.”
“We need to conduct flexible deterrent options,” he said. “If North Korea’s tests are, as President Trump said, ‘short range are very standard’ then Japan, the United States and South Korea should test similar ground-based missiles,” he added, also suggesting that their militaries work more closely.
Trump’s tacit acceptance of the short-range tests could also have dire implications for the U.S. nuclear umbrella.
Murano said the nuclear umbrella is essentially based on the reliability of retaliation by the U.S. If Japan faced a nuclear attack from North Korea, the United States would certainly retaliate, the logic being that Kim would not choose to attack Japan if the U.S. retaliation was predictable.
“But what if [Kim] misunderstands that?” asked Murano, noting that his possession of an ICBM capable of striking the U.S. and Trump’s continued lack of criticism of shorter-range weapons could alter the calculus.
“This issue is based on the [Kim’s] perception, not on the U.S. president’s willingness to retaliate,” he said. “The more confident [Kim] is about his deterrent options, the more likely he is to misunderstand.”