The Cable

Latest North Korean Missile Launch Sparks New Fears in Asia, Silence From White House

U.S. allies in Asia condemned the launch as an 'extremely dangerous action.'


North Korea fired four missiles toward the Sea of Japan on Monday morning (Sunday afternoon in Washington), sparking condemnation from China and U.S. allies in Asia, and further ratcheting up tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

Experts said Pyongyang is testing President Donald Trump’s neophyte administration — and plenty of others are taking note.

“China, North Korea, and U.S. allies are going to be closely watching his response,” Thomas Karako, a missile defense expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Foreign Policy.

But some 18 hours after the launch, the White House has not yet issued any statement, despite immediate and sharp rebukes from Japan and South Korean leaders. (The White House has found the time, meanwhile, to dispute the conclusions of the FBI director on Trump’s wiretap claims.)

“This is a direct challenge to the international community and a grave violation,” acting South Korean President Hwang Kyo-ahn said. “Having seen the brutality of North Korea from Kim Jong Nam, I’d say the consequences of the Kim Jong Un regime having nuclear weapons will be horrible,” he said, referring to the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s exiled half brother in Malaysia in February.

The missiles landed in water some 300 miles from Japanese shores, sparking an immediate rebuke from the Japanese government even as the White House remained silent.

“The launches are clearly in violation of Security Council resolutions. It is an extremely dangerous action,” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told parliament, referring to U.N. Security Council resolutions passed against North Korea.

The missiles reached an average height of 160 miles and traveled over 600 miles, though they were not likely intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), according to the South Korean military. South Korean defense ministry spokesperson Roh Jae-cheon said in a briefing the missiles were launched from the Tongchang-ri region near the North Korean border with China, but added it was too early to tell what specific type of missiles were launched.

The North American Aerospace Defense Command determined the missiles “did not pose a threat to North America,” Maj. Matthew Miller, a spokesman for U.S. Strategic Command, told FP.

The State Department also condemned the launch. “The DPRK’s provocations only serve to increase the international community’s resolve to counter the DPRK’s prohibited weapons of mass destruction programs,” acting State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement.

Even China took North Korea to task, saying it violated U.N. resolutions. China has historically been North Korea’s most important ally, an economic and political lifeline to the outer world the Hermit Kingdom shuns. But Beijing is increasingly fed up with North Korea’s antics and nuclear weapons program. In February, it banned coal imports from North Korea, cutting the cash-starved country off from a valuable source of foreign income (Though Pyongyang still operates an intricate network of front companies in China to evade international sanctions and funnel in foreign income, as Foreign Policy reported).

Pyongyang launched the missiles to “try and drive a wedge between the United States and its allies,” said Karako of CSIS. But he said it would likely have the opposite effect as Washington tightens its security relationships with South Korea and Japan. The three countries are “consciously and deliberately moving toward greater defensive capability,” Karako said, referring to South Korea’s planned deployment of U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense systems. Thanks to Pyongyang’s launch Monday, “all this is going to speed up, not slow down,” he said.

Photo credit: KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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