N orth Korean state media announced the launch of a medium- to long-range ballistic missile this week, demonstrating significant progress in the nation’s pursuit of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs).
The missile, named Pukguksong-2, was launched on February 12 and reportedly travelled 310 miles before landing in the Sea of Japan. The UN Security Council met two days later, condemning this latest breach of the resolution banning the country from testing ballistic missiles and urging members to “redouble efforts” to enforce sanctions.
Many saw Pyongyang’s timing as a statement of intent. The decision to launch the missile as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the US was a “calculated symbolic act of defiance” designed to show that the “DPRK can still shake up the geopolitical landscape of Northeast Asia,” said Dr. Yu Jie, research fellow at LSE IDEAS, a foreign policy think-tank.
The test has fostered unease throughout the Asia Pacific. Mr. Abe labelled it “absolutely intolerable” during a press conference in Florida this week; alongside him, President Donald Trump told reporters that the US “stands behind Japan, its great ally".
Nonetheless, Mr. Trump’s response was relatively muted, perhaps demonstrating America’s strategic dilemma. Joshua Pollack, editor of the Washington-based Nonproliferation Review, suggests Trump has two options: to “double down” or to find ways to engage with North Korea before they “move on to testing ICBMs”.
Doubling down might involve accelerating plans to deploy a ballistic missile defence system known as THAAD in the South, but this would exacerbate tensions with Beijing. On the other hand, engaging with North Korea would be a departure from Mr. Trump’s usually uncompromising approach towards his adversaries. Allies in the region would see it as a vindication of North Korea’s bellicose behaviour.
Although China, North Korea’s most powerful ally, condemned the launch at the UN, foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang rejected US claims that Beijing should do more to discourage Kim Jong-un’s aggression. He said Washington and South Korea should recognise their own roles in fostering current tensions.
North Korea’s move may prove a shrewd one: Mr. Trump now finds himself forced to formulate a coherent Korean policy earlier into his presidency than he may have liked, providing an unwanted distraction to his bold East Asia strategy.