After North Korea claimed Tuesday that it had successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach Alaska, leader Kim Jong Un openly taunted the U.S., calling the move a “package of gifts” for “American bastards.”
The U.S. and South Korea hit back at the provocation by firing missiles of their own on Wednesday, warning Pyongyang that the only thing stopping an armed conflict was “self-restraint.”
“Self-restraint, which is a choice, is all that separates armistice and war,” cautioned General Vincent Brooks, the commander of American troops based in Seoul, referring to the 1953 ceasefire that halted but never officially ended the Korean War.
Brooks made the comments after the U.S. and South Korean military conducted a rare joint missile exercise off the east coast of South Korea, which the general said showed “we are able to change our choice when so ordered by our alliance national leaders.” He added that it would be “a grave mistake for anyone to believe anything to the contrary.”
South Korean President Moon Jae-in asked President Donald Trump to agree to the tests in a call Tuesday night, with officials saying the missile launches were designed to show they could carry out “a precision strike at the enemy leadership” in case of war.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also weighed in, calling North Korea’s latest move a “new escalation of the threat,” and said Washington “will never accept a nuclear-armed North Korea.”
Just days ahead of the G-20 summit set to take place in Hamburg July 7, Tillerson said that “global action is required to stop a global threat.” He added that any country providing economic or military assistance to Pyongyang or failing to fully implement U.N. Security Council resolutions, was “aiding and abetting a dangerous regime.” The Japanese, South Korean, and U.S. leaders are set to hold talks on the sidelines of the summit to discuss the growing threat from the hermit kingdom.
Following a request from the U.S., Japan, and South Korea, the United Nations Security Council will hold a closed-door session for all 15 members on Wednesday to discuss the situation on the Korean Peninsula.
The missile launch was heralded as a great coup by Kim Jong Un, who personally oversaw the launch, calling the test a Fourth of July gift to “American bastards,” according to the state-run news agency.
“We should send them gifts once in a while to help break their boredom,” he added, describing the missile as “handsome as a good-looking boy.”
So how does North Korea’s latest missile test affect the U.S. approach to dealing with Pyongyang?
- Experts believe that, despite the test Tuesday, North Korea is still some years away from successfully miniaturizing a nuclear warhead and mount it on an ICBM. Nonetheless, this latest attempt has “demonstrated yet another new capability, underscoring that they are capable of making rapid achievements in building reliable, long-range missiles,” Go Myo-hyun, a research fellow at the Asian Institute for Policy Studies, told NK News.
- By bringing Alaska within range, the threat from North Korea changes both practically and symbolically. But John Nilsson-Wright, from London-based think tank Chatham House, believes Trump’s “weakness lies in having overplayed his hand too publicly and too loudly.” Nilsson-Wright lists the failure to get China to make any significant change in its approach to North Korea, and the U.S. military’s deployment of a U.S. armada to the region, which failed to intimidate Pyongyang. As a result, Trump’s options are limited.
- Despite the bombastic language from General Brooks, a military intervention is unlikely and poses a large risk, especially to the citizens of South Korea and Japan. A political solution will likely involve the revisiting of sanctions, but that path has so far singularly failed to stop North Korea’s mission to develop a nuclear weapon capable of striking the U.S.
South Korea says its policy of engagement and dialogue toward Pyongyang will remain in place, but if the U.S. is now theoretically within range of North Korean missiles, then there’s more pressure on Trump to take decisive action. Analysis suggests we are likely to see more provocation from Kim in the coming weeks, and the White House will have to come up with answers sooner rather than later.