The day after US President Donald Trump warned of a “major, major conflict” and his aides called for “painful” punitive measures, North Korea test-fired a missile that failed to fly far but sent a firm message that it will not be cowed down.
The surface-to-surface missile, which did not clear the North Korean shoreline making it one more in a series of failures, according to reports, came just hours after secretary of state Rex Tillerson’s call at the UN for a united front.
Hours after the failed test, the White House responded with a statement that the administration was aware of the “most recent North Korean missile test” and that “the President has been briefed”.
Trump followed that up with a tweet, his preferred form of communication: “North Korea disrespected the wishes of China & its highly respected President when it launched, though unsuccessfully, a missile today. Bad!”
This was the 75th missile test by North Korea under Kim Jong Un’s watch since 2011 and at least the eighth since Trump’s inauguration in January; the first came during Japanese premier Shinzo Abe’s visit as Trump’s guest at his Florida resort in February.
Trump, who told Reuters in an interview earlier that there was a chance the US “could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea”, has tried to persuade China to use its considerable influence to rein in its client state. That was the context of his tweet.
But, he has insisted, the United States was willing to go it alone if China, which buys 85% of North Korean exports, seemed disinclined, and his tweet on Friday appeared to be an attempt to nudge, and goad, Beijing to do more.
But experts have argued Beijing has shrinking leverage over Pyongyang, with most of its allies in the regime purged by Kim, the 27-year-old North Korean leader who is also alleged to have had his half-brother killed in Malaysia recently.
Tillerson unveiled a US campaign at the UN on Friday, hours before the North Korean missile test, that seemed to open doors, or leave them ajar at the least, for negotiations, stating it did not want a regime change.
Trump signalled a similar message of accommodation in his Reuters interview saying he gives credit to Kim as “not many 27-year-old men could go in and take over a regime”, suggesting he understands the young leader’s compulsion.
Tillerson went on to propose a three-point formula to tackle North Korea, peaceably but with all options — including the use of military — on the table. First, he said, all member nations must enforce sanctions agreed upon by the US in 2016 and before.
Second, Tillerson urged member nations of the world body to downgrade their diplomatic ties with North Korea. It was an appeal not accompanied by the threat of consequences, which is standard American pressure tactic.
It wasn’t immediately known how, and if, India, which has full diplomatic ties with North Korea with an embassy in Pyongyang and had discussed North Korea with US national security adviser HR McMaster during his recent visit, would respond.
Tillerson’s third and final suggestion was to introduce new sanctions, with the aggregated aim to implement this “new pressure campaign (which) will be swiftly implemented and (will be) painful to North Korean interest”.