Latest missile provocation by North Korea not unexpected
Range of 3,700km is proof that Kim Jong-un regime could target Guam if it chooses
A screen in Tokyo broadcasting a news report showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un after a North Korean missile passed over Japan on Friday. Photograph: Getty Images
The news that North Korea launched its 15th missile test this year in the early hours of Friday has upped the stakes in an already tense situation.
The missile, which was launched from Pyongyang airport at 6.23 local time, marks the second time in a month that North Korea has sent a missile over Japan, and comes almost two weeks after it claimed to have tested a hydrogen bomb.
While the news of the launch prompted a meeting of senior administration officials and vice-president Mike Pence in the Situation Room in the White House, the latest provocation by North Korea was not unexpected. Pyongyang was predicted to respond in some way to the latest round of UN sanctions agreed on Monday.
Despite threats by US president Donald Trump to respond to any threat from North Korea, the US chose not to shoot down the missile, most likely because it was evidently not aimed at land – neither Japan or the US territory of Guam.
But the symbolism of the latest missile test was clear. The intermediate range ballistic missile travelled 3,700km before crashing into the sea – the furthest ever flight by a North Korean missile. The range is proof that North Korea could target Guam if it so chooses.
Despite the fiery rhetoric from Mr Trump on Friday and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un – the test came a day after North Korea’s government pledged to “reduce the US mainland into ashes and darkness” – the focus in the intermediate term is likely to be on diplomacy.
Mr Trump, who is due to make his first address to the UN General Assembly next week, is evidently unhappy that the sanctions agreed on Monday by the UN Security Council did not go as far as the United States had wanted.
The US delegation had pushed for a full oil embargo – China, which supplies about 90 per cent of North Korea’s oil and has a veto on the Security Council – opposed it, although it was agreed to curtail oil and fuel exports to the rogue nation by about a third.
Similarly, the United States had circulated a paper ahead of Monday’s meeting calling for western ships to be given the power to stop and search vessels leaving and entering North Korea. Again America’s ambitions were curtailed, with the Security Council prohibiting the use of military force to oblige vessels to comply.
Mr Trump let his feelings be known following a meeting with Malaysia’s prime minister in the White House earlier this week. He described the sanctions as a “small step” which “are nothing compared to what ultimately will have to happen”.
Speaking to reporters in the White House on Friday, US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley defended the package of sanctions, describing the agreement reached earlier this week as a “massive sanctions package”, and pointing out that it would take time for their effects to be felt.
Nonetheless, despite his misgivings about the ambition of the sanctions package, there are signs that Mr Trump is likely to maintain pressure on China and Russia rather than call for further sanctions next week.
The United States has been pushing both countries to do more to rein in North Korea, and secretary of state Rex Tillerson was unequivocal in his comments on the latest missile threat on Friday, saying China and Russia “must indicate their intolerance for these reckless missile launches by taking direct actions of their own”.
Seoul has struck a more strident tone towards North Korea, for the first time stating that “dialogue is impossible” with North Korea following the latest test.
Mr Trump may indeed make “quite an impact” when he addresses the UN next week, as Ms Haley put it. But any move towards military action is not likely to be on the cards at this juncture.