Muted response to missile test risks emboldening Kim


TOKYO • Kim Jong-un’s weekend missile launch — and the US muted reaction — heralds a new, riskier phase in North Korean efforts to test US President Donald Trump’s limits in stalled nuclear talks.

On Saturday, Kim oversaw a military exercise that non-proliferation experts said included the launch of a short-range ballistic missile — a test banned under United Nations (UN) sanctions and North Korea’s first such provocation since November 2017.

Rather than condemn the move, US and South Korean officials played down the threat, with US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo (picture) noting the weapons “were relatively short range”.

While that may help preserve nuclear talks with Kim, North Korea analysts warned that it could be seen by the regime as a green light for similar tests going forward. The launch followed Kim’s pledges to push back against international economic sanctions after Trump walked away from their nuclear summit in Hanoi in February.

“North Korea will likely continue to escalate tensions and put public pressure on Washington absent a new diplomatic initiative from the US or South Korea,” said Mintaro Oba, a former US diplomat who worked on Korean peninsula issues.

“Given the fact that North Korea paid no real cost for these launches in Washington or in the region, Pyongyang will probably feel emboldened and justified in conducting shorter-range launches in the future.”

Kim’s live-fire military exercise, in which at least one ballistic missile and other lesser rockets were fired off the country’s eastern coast, challenged the US and South Korea to craft a response that wouldn’t scuttle talks.

Trump has often cited North Korea’s decision to refrain from tests of longer-range ballistic missiles that could threaten the US to justify his decision to continue negotiations despite lit t le progress toward disarmament.

The risk is that North Korea further escalates in its efforts to get Trump’s attention and extract a better offer from the US.

Over the years, it has conducted scores of weapons tests, usually calculated to avoid provoking military action, further UN Security Council sanctions or annoying backers such as China and Russia.

“North Korea enjoys dancing in the grey zone between war and peace by engaging in aggressive actions without risking escalation or provoking a military response from Washington,” said Duyeon Kim, a Seoul-based specialist on North Korea at the Centre for a New American Security.

Such tests — particularly of new weapons — can alarm the region and provide the regime valuable information to make its arsenal more lethal and harder to destroy in the event of any conflict.

Kim could also seek to test Trump’s bottom line with a satellite launch that he could argue serves a civilian purpose while helping developing intercontinental-ballistic- missile (ICBM) engines and guidance systems.

“Even if we internally concur with Kim that the testing moratorium only applies to ICBMs, we shouldn’t publicly say it, because it essentially says we will tolerate him testing anything short of that,” said Vipin Narang, an associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a member of its security studies programme. — Bloomberg