Pyongyang ups the ante

North Korea may find it less easy to provoke unpredictable president Trump than it hoped

The test-firing of a new nuclear-capable intermediate-range ballistic missile by North Korea on Sunday – the Pukguksong-2 – was another ratcheting up of the rogue state's nuclear capacity. The missile reached an altitude of 550 km and flew about 500 km towards Japan, landing off the east coast of the Korean peninsula.

Another step on the road to its boast that it will soon have the capability – still some way off – to attack the United States 9,000 km away with an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). But Pyongyang did demonstrate a significant technological advance in its mastery of a high-thrust, solid fuel-powered engine. Solid fuel use is a notable improvement in its ability to hide launches and to fire quickly.

North Korea has now conducted five nuclear tests, including two last year, in breach of UN resolutions, although its claims to be able to miniaturise a nuclear weapon for a missile have never been verified. It has never fired an ICBM across the Pacific but has boasted of successfully testing key technologies in the past year.

The timing of the latest firing is seen as an attempt to test the water with new US President Trump who this weekend had been hosting Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Trump's response was more measured than many of his post-election sabre-rattling declarations; a reassuringly firm commitment to be "behind Japan, our great ally, 100 percent". His message to South Korea was as supportive last week when defence secretary Jim Mattis emphasised the importance of deploying a controversial advanced missile defence system, THAAD, in the country this year to counter the Northern threat.


Despite campaign demands to Asian allies to pay their own defence costs, Trump has significantly muted his foreign policy rhetoric in recent days, including a message to China that he will now support its One-China policy. He appears to be reverting to a more traditional, Obamaesque, US coalition-building regional role. North Korea may find it less easy to provoke this unpredictable president than it hoped.