North Korea is at it again, testing a third set of missiles in just over a week. If anyone thought President Donald Trump’s personal friendship with Kim Jong Un would make these threatening moves go away, it’s officially time to think again.
The South Korean and US militaries have confirmed the newest test. According to South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, the North fired an unknown, short-range projectile into the Sea of Japan from the country’s Yonghung province in the south. That adds to the rocket launches this week and a similar missile test last week. As of now, it’s unclear how far the projectiles flew or how high they went.
Two main things explain why Kim is launching such a barrage these days.
First, it’s mostly a message to Seoul not to go forward with a planned August military exercise with the US. South Korea has not canceled the drill, so North Korea may keep testing missiles until Seoul or Washington caves.
Second, Trump has given Kim almost complete license to test any weapons he wants short of a nuclear bomb or intercontinental ballistic missile.
The reason is straightforward: The US and North Korea have made little progress in their diplomatic effort to reach a deal over dismantling Pyongyang’s nuclear program. Kim wants Trump to lift sanctions on his country before he gives up some of his weapons, and Trump wants Kim to give up nearly all of his weapons before he lifts the sanctions. As a result, the two sides remain locked in a stalemate.
Trump’s stance, though, is that North Korea is more likely to dismantle its nuclear program as long as he and Kim remain friendly. That consideration seemingly outweighs almost anything else going on between the two countries.
Which is why Trump will likely shrug off this latest test, just as he has with all the others over the past week. “I have no problem,” Trump told reporters outside the White House after being asked about North Korea’s other two launches. “These are short-range missiles.”
Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA), a top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wants Trump and the administration to be a little tougher on Kim.
“Not only has President Trump failed to codify in writing a nuclear and missile testing freeze, but when he says he has ‘no problem’ with shorter range missile launches, he gives North Korea a green light to violate UN Security Council resolutions and threaten our allies,” Markey said in a statement. “Instead of willfully ignoring these launches, President Trump and Secretary Pompeo must strongly and definitively call on North Korea to halt these provocations.”
On one hand, it’s reasonable, and perhaps even prudent, for Trump and his administration not to overreact to Kim’s weaponry. It’s better not to blow up any chance of diplomatic progress over a few missile tests, no matter how threatening. On the other hand, some experts say the administration could do much more than brush off those provocations.
“Maybe they’re picking their battles to focus on resuming much-needed negotiations for a deal,” Duyeon Kim, a North Korea expert at the Center for a New American Security think tank in Washington, told me last week after Pyongyang’s first of three recent missile tests. “But if they continue to dismiss smaller missiles for long, they’re enabling Pyongyang to strengthen these dangerous weapons and telling South Korea and Americans living there that they don’t matter.”