- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 29, 2017

President Trump has brought a new toughness to U.S. rhetoric toward North Korea, but the Kim Jong-un regime in Pyongyang showed anew this week that it still has the power to decide when and where to escalate the crisis in the region over its nuclear programs and missile tests.

Pyongyang launched a missile over Japan on Tuesday, just a week after Mr. Trump claimed that his threats to rain “fire and fury” on Pyongyang if it continued to threaten the U.S. and its East Asian allies had worked to get Mr. Kim “to respect us.” Analysts say the latest test calls that assertion into serious question.

Mr. Trump, who spent the day inspecting storm damage in Texas from Hurricane Harvey, insisted once again in a statement Tuesday that all options remain on the table to deal with the North, implicitly including military force. But some say the president is struggling to project a coherent strategy at a moment when U.S. allies are concerned about the mixed messaging and wary that the administration may lack the resources and personnel necessary to deal with Pyongyang.

In a sign that the North was not intimidated by the tougher line Mr. Trump promised, North Korea’s official news agency revealed Tuesday evening U.S. time that Mr. Kim was present as the country for the first time fired a ballistic missile designed to carry a nuclear payload over Japanese territory.

The report said Mr. Kim praised the launch, called for more missile tests and said the exercise was a “meaningful prelude” to containing Guam, a critical Pentagon hub for the entire region.

Analysts said Mr. Kim precisely calibrated the missile firing not to cross a U.S. red line — not targeting a U.S. base or possession such as Guam — while targeting a critical U.S. ally in Japan.

North Korea employed the same Hwasong-12 intermediate-range missile that it has said could target Guam and conducted the launch while much of official Washington was transfixed by the crisis in Texas.

But even while being dealt few good military options, Washington is suffering from a few self-inflicted wounds as well.

Seven months into Mr. Trump’s tenure, the White House still hasn’t filled key Pentagon and State Department posts for Asia that analysts say are essential to reassuring allies including South Korea and Japan, and adversaries such as China, that Washington can formulate and carry out a strategy to contain the Kim regime.

The lack of a Trump-appointed assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs or an assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs — let alone a U.S. ambassador to South Korea — is limiting the administration’s ability to implement policy, national security sources say.

“There are acting people in these positions, but they don’t have the same influence or perceived power as a presidential nominee,” said Bruce Klingner, a Northeast Asia scholar at the Heritage Foundation who once ran the CIA’s Korea branch.

“Sometimes allies will tell me they call the State Department and are simply referred to the White House because it seems the State Department is out of the loop,” Mr. Klingner said in an interview Tuesday.

“The personnel issue is real,” said Michael Mazza, a specialist on East Asia at the American Enterprise Institute. Mr. Trump’s National Security Council just doesn’t “have the bodies to throw at the problem,” Mr. Mazza said, which means “you don’t have the regional expertise that you want to have at this point in time.”

Allies in the lead

Japan and South Korea appeared to be taking the lead Tuesday in responding to the missile test.

Washington and Seoul were engaged in annual joint military exercises — drills that North Korea has long criticized as a rehearsal for an invasion. But it was the South Korean air force that responded by scrambling fighter jets to carry out a live-fire drill designed to show its ability to target the Kim regime if necessary.

Four South Korean F-15K fighters pounded a simulated target in the hills south of the Demilitarized Zone with eight MK-84 bombs — roughly 1-ton bombs used for destroying underground bunkers, according to the Yonhap News Agency in Seoul.

The missile’s flight set off alarms across northern Japan, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe denounced North Korea’s latest missile test as “an unprecedented, grave and serious threat.”

Officials in Tokyo say the missile flew over Japan’s northernmost Hokkaido island for two minutes before breaking into three segments and plunging into the Pacific about 730 miles east of the Japanese coastline.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington said it was the first test since 1998 of “a developmental North Korean ballistic missile over Japanese territory” but that North Korean satellite launch attempts in 2009, 2012 and 2016 also sent projectiles across Japanese airspace.

U.S. analysts called it a brazen provocation by Mr. Kim just weeks after the U.N. Security Council unanimously imposed the harshest economic sanctions to date against Pyongyang.

At the United Nations on Tuesday, at the behest of Japan among other nations, the Security Council condemned North Korea’s “outrageous” launch and repeated earlier demands for an end to Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear programs.

The Security Council has not acted on North Korea’s request last week for a debate on the U.S.-South Korean military drills.

The U.S. military has roughly 30,000 personnel stationed in South Korea and some 50,000 in Japan, and Mr. Trump spoke by phone with Mr. Abe on Tuesday morning for about 40 minutes.

“President Trump and Prime Minister Abe committed to increasing pressure on North Korea, and doing their utmost to convince the international community to do the same,” according to a readout of the call released by the White House.

In a separate statement, Mr. Trump said “all options are on the table.”

“The world has received North Korea’s latest message loud and clear: This regime has signaled its contempt for its neighbors, for all members of the United Nations and for minimum standards of acceptable international behavior,” the president said. “Threatening and destabilizing actions only increase the North Korean regime’s isolation in the region and among all nations of the world.”

Rhetorical war

The rhetorical war escalated sharply in recent weeks after the Trump administration proclaimed the “era of strategic patience” with North Korea was over.

Mr. Trump promised “fire and fury like the world has never seen” in the wake of reports that the Kim regime had succeeded in making a nuclear weapon small enough to fit inside one of its ballistic missiles. He warned later that the U.S. military was “locked and loaded” to respond to any North Korean missile firing at Guam.

The president subsequently tempered the threat, suggesting that Washington remained open to dialogue with Pyongyang. Just last week, he told supporters at a rally in Phoenix that there were signs that the North had received the message.

“I respect the fact that he is starting to respect us,” Mr. Trump said of Mr. Kim at the time. “Maybe — probably not, but maybe — something positive can come about.”

Mr. Klingner said Tuesday that Mr. Trump’s comments at the Phoenix rally “were premature and a bit naive.”

The shifting messages have created the perception that “what Trump tweets or says may only be bluster,” he said.

Some Democrats pounced on the opportunity to criticize Mr. Trump’s approach on Tuesday.

“As with most of President Trump’s foreign policy, there is no coherent North Korea strategy — just empty statements and wild, counterproductive tweets,” said Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “We need a clear strategy and plan of action.”

Mr. Cardin suggested that more pressure must be put on China and Russia — Pyongyang’s main allies and trading partners — to exert influence over the regime in Pyongyang.

Both signed on to the early-August U.N. Security Council sanctions, which seek to ban North Korea from exporting coal, iron, lead and seafood worth about a third of its total income from trade.

China’s customs agency has said it will begin enforcing the sanctions next week. But Beijing has been hesitant to push too hard against the Kim regime in neighboring North Korea, claiming it fears a massive refugee crisis if the regime suddenly falls.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman told reporters on Tuesday that tensions have reached a “tipping point approaching a crisis” and urged all sides to avoid provocations and to see “there is an opportunity” for peace talks to occur.

Some argue that Pyongyang is taking advantage of the stalemate between the U.S. and China, believing its string of missile tests this year won’t result in anything more than heated rhetoric from Washington and its allies.

But the regime could also be legitimately concerned that the Trump administration will lose patience.

Dennis P. Halpin, a visiting scholar with the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, said Mr. Kim has “shrewdly calculated the best means for preserving his family dynasty.”

He can be expected to “carefully calibrate his series of provocations as not to trigger a wider conflict which would likely spell the end of his regime,” Mr. Halpin wrote in a commentary in the The American Thinker.

Carlo Muñoz, David Sherfinski and Dave Boyer contributed to this report, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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