President Donald Trump said the United States was “100%” with ally Japan late on Saturday night in response to a ballistic missile test by North Korea in an apparent message to the leaders of the two countries meeting at a Florida resort.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was more forthright telling reporters at a hastily convened news conference the test was “absolutely intolerable” and urged North Korea to “fully comply with the relevant (United Nations) security resolutions”.
The US president, who has sounded more aggressive in the past vowing to end North Korea’s weapon testing, said in a short one-sentence statement: “I just want everybody to understand and fully know that the United States of America stands behind Japan, its great ally, 100%.”
There was no threat of retaliation or even a response.
Just the day before, Trump had said in a joint statement with Abe: “The US and Japan strongly urge North Korea to abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes and not to take any further provocative actions”.
The missile tested by North Korea on Friday flew 500km before plunging into the sea, in the stretch between the Japan and the Korean peninsula, according to the South Korean defence ministry, which first announced the test.
“We suspect North Korea demonstrated a show of force in order to test the Trump administration and US responses,” said a South Korean military official who declined to be identified, according to The Wall Street Journal.
The US response did come, but took a while. At a photo-op in the evening, before dinner, Trump ignored a question shouted out by a reporter from the protective pool about the North Korean missile test. He had been briefed about it. A White House official had told reporters earlier in the day: “We are aware of the missile launch by North Korea. We are continuing to closely monitor the situation.”
When North Korean leader Kim Jong Un announced earlier this year that his country was close to testing an intercontinental missile, that could reach the US, Trump said in a tweet, “It won’t happen.” That was before his inauguration.
In recent weeks, his defence secretary James Mattis assured allies Japan and South Korea, during a visit, of full American support and threatened an “effective and overwhelming” response to North Korean nuclear attack on the US or its allies. As a candidate, Trump had caused concern at home and in the region saying he would be fine with Japan and South Korea, currently protected by an American umbrella, going nuclear to defend themselves against a nuclear North Korea.
He is not pushing it clearly, and the allies may have reasons to feel somewhat more reassured after the Mattis visit, experts noted the absence of South Korea from the short statement Trump read out on Saturday night.