North Korea on Tuesday conducted its 11th missile test of the year. Pyongyang claimed — and the U.S. government confirmed — that it was an intercontinental ballistic missile. The Hwasong-14 missile reached an altitude of 2,100 km and flew more than 930 km to land in the waters of Japan’s exclusive economic zone. North Korean media hailed the “shining success” and experts believe that it demonstrates that country’s ability to hit the United States, a long-cherished goal of Pyongyang. As a North Korean government spokesperson declared after the test, Pyongyang “will fundamentally terminate the U.S. nuclear war threats and blackmail, and credibly protect the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula and the region.”
Contrary to that assertion, a successful ICBM test does not mean that Pyongyang can deliver a nuclear warhead to U.S. territory, although North Korea is inching toward that objective. More worrisome is the North Korean belief that it has that capability and that it can deter the U.S. from taking action to stop Pyongyang from threatening neighbors and ignoring international law. Washington remained committed to the defense of its allies throughout the Cold War when the Soviet Union threatened retaliation against the U.S. homeland with many more nuclear weapons than the North will ever muster.
North Korea must be stripped of the illusion that the U.S. can be decoupled from Japan and South Korea, its two Northeast Asian allies. Close coordination between Washington, Tokyo and Seoul is critical to the realization of that goal. Pyongyang’s dream is to divide our three nations; we must work harder to ensure that North Korea does not miscalculate or exaggerate its capabilities.
The existential threat posed by North Korea motivates virtually all South Korean presidents to visit the U.S. on their first overseas trip. South Korean President Moon Jae-in was no exception. Last week, he journeyed to Washington to meet President Donald Trump and ensure that their two governments are in sync in dealing with Pyongyang. Although problems may blossom over time, their meeting was, by all accounts, a success. While those two countries alone cannot solve the North Korean problem, a meeting of the minds is a necessary condition for success.
There were good reasons to be concerned about the summit. Moon is a progressive, and the left in South Korea has long chafed under the alliance with the U.S. Like his friend and mentor Roh Moo-hyun, the last left-leaning president of South Korea, Moon favors dialogue and engagement with Pyongyang in pursuit of the Sunshine Policy of the country’s first progressive president, Kim Dae-jung. Moon has voiced doubts about the Terminal High Altitude Aerial Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system that has been deployed in South Korea to protect the country and U.S. forces.
Moon’s objections to THAAD were magnified by Trump’s criticism of South Korea as a free-rider on the alliance and the U.S. president’s call for Seoul to pay for the missile system (a demand that was repudiated by his own national security adviser). Trump’s insistence that all countries squeeze North Korea to force it back to the negotiating table and his ready reminder that the military option remains on the table are the antithesis of the Sunshine Policy.
Trump’s assertion that the South Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement is unfair to the U.S. and must be renegotiated also stiffens the spine of South Korean nationalists, although some leftists also criticize the trade deal — for being too favorable to the U.S.
Their summit went well, however. Trump tweeted after their dinner that the two men had a very good meeting, while Moon said in a joint appearance that he and Trump had forged a friendship of “deep mutual trust.” Speaking in the Rose Garden, Trump said that the U.S. “will always defend our allies.” According to their joint statement, the presidents “affirmed their commitment to fully implement existing sanctions and impose new measures” on North Korea. Moon also offered support for the Trump administration’s policy of “maximum pressure and engagement.”
How that is translated into policy and how that balance is struck are unclear. For all the smiles, Moon and Trump see the North in fundamentally different ways. Moon would like to reopen the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a North-South economic project that has been shuttered since February 2016, which would undercut U.S. efforts to force Pyongyang to negotiate. Trump’s insistence that North Korea is a regime that “has no respect for human life” and “no regard for the safety and security of its people or its neighbors” undercuts the logic of engagement that Moon has championed.
Yet after Tuesday’s test, Trump asked, in a tweet, “does this guy [North Korean leader Kim Jong Un] have nothing better to do with his life?” He added, “Hard to believe that South Korea and Japan will put up with this much longer. Perhaps China will put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all!”
That is no response — although its lackadaisical nature undercuts the notion that a North Korean ICBM capability transforms regional security. While far more is needed to counter the North Korean missile threat, an accurate assessment of that threat and its consequences is the first place to start.