The Trump administration responded cautiously Sunday to North Korea’s test launch of an intermediate-range ballistic missile into the sea off the isolated nation’s east coast in Pyongyang’s first major provocation since President Trump took office last month.
While the test drew swift condemnations from Japan and South Korea, President Trump had no specific comment on it and senior administration officials offered only calculated remarks, saying the White House will develop a calibrated response to avoid a serious escalation of tensions in Northeast Asia.
“We are going to reinforce and strengthen our vital alliances in the Pacific region as part of our strategy to deter and prevent the increasing hostility that we’ve seen in recent years from the North Korean regime,” said White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, as other key administration players, including National Security Adviser Michael G. Flynn and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, remained mum.
Mr. Miller made the comments on “Fox News Sunday” after the North Korean launch set off a flurry of activity late Saturday in Florida, where Mr. Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appeared together at a hastily arranged press conference at the president’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach.
Mr. Abe, who spent the weekend at the resort for extended meetings and golf with the president, told reporters that the launch was “absolutely intolerable” and that North Korea “must fully comply with the relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions” that bar Pyongyang from developing or testing ballistic or nuclear missile technology.
Mr. Trump did not address the North Korean missile launch explicitly, but said: “I just want everybody to understand and fully know that the United States of America stands behind Japan, its great ally, 100 percent.”
Neither of the men took questions during the three-minute press conference, held just hours after North Korea made global headlines with the launch of what U.S. and South Korean military sources believe was a modified version of Pyongyang’s intermediate-range Musudan ballistic missile.
The missile was launched at 7:55 a.m. local time in Northeast Asia on Sunday. U.S. Strategic Command confirmed that it had tracked the missile, saying it posed no immediate threat to North America, while the South Korean military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said it had taken off from the town of Baghyon — near North Korea’s northwestern border with China — and flown roughly 300 miles before crashing into the East Sea/Sea of Japan.
The launch was a far cry from Pyongyang’s claim to be ready and capable of carrying out an intercontinental ballistic missile test. But it was quickly condemned in South Korea, where officials called the development a clear violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
The South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff asserted in a statement that it believed Pyongyang had conducted the launch as a calculated move aimed at “showing off its nuclear and missile capabilities in protest against the new U.S. government.”
Analysts generally agreed with the assertion, although some also pointed to Pyongyang’s warnings that a missile test may be imminent and noted that North Korea is slated Thursday to mark the birthday of dictator Kim Jong-un’s late father, Kim Jong-il — a celebration that in past years has coincided with missile tests and other provocations.
Acting South Korean President and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn said Seoul will respond by punishing the North. But it was not immediately clear on Sunday what actions that might entail.
The South Korean Foreign Ministry said Seoul will continue to work with allies, including the U.S., Japan and the European Union, to ensure a thorough implementation of sanctions against the North to make it realize it will “never be able to survive” without discarding all of its nuclear and missile programs.
The Obama administration responded to a series of nuclear bomb tests that Pyongyang carried out last year with a wave of economic sanctions that included coordinated participation from South Korea, Japan and — to a lesser degree — China. President Obama also moved toward a significant uptick in the U.S.-South Korean military alliance — most notably with the deployment of a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense system to South Korea, where roughly 30,000 U.S. troops are stationed.
The Obama administration spent years trying pressure China, North Korea’s main economic partner and military ally, into containing Pyongyang. But Beijing’s relative lack of action during recent years has prompted frustration in Washington, and criticism of President Obama’s general policy of “strategic patience” was mounting when he left office last month.
With that as a backdrop, speculation has surged over how Mr. Trump may proceed toward the North Korea challenge. The administration’s muted response on Sunday marked a stark departure from a series of aggressive comments toward Pyongyang from Mr. Trump.
Some hard-line analysts have argued that the Trump administration should move toward a policy of regime change in North Korea. But it remains to be seen whether U.S. lawmakers would embrace such a dramatic policy shift and escalation with Pyongyang.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican, said recently that the U.S. should be prepared to “preemptively strike” North Korea to prevent an intercontinental ballistic missile launch, but he also has suggested that any serious policy shift would require debate.
“We should redouble our efforts to enforce sanctions and work with our Japanese and South Korean allies to strengthen deterrence capabilities,” Mr. Corker said during a committee hearing examining the issue late last month. “However, as we find ourselves staring down the barrel of a North Korean ICBM, we have an obligation to the American people to challenge existing assumptions and explore policy alternatives.”
Mr. Trump, meanwhile, drew international attention on Jan. 2 with the following tweet: “North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won’t happen.”
Many in Washington saw the comments as a kind of red line for North Korea.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said Sunday that this weekend’s missile launch was clearly Pyongyang’s way of testing Mr. Trump and suggested that the president should have responded more thoroughly during the hours immediately following the launch.
“I was glad he issued the statement with the prime minister of Japan, but he also ought to do it quickly with South Korea,” Mr. Schumer told CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
“South Korea is probably more susceptible to North Korea’s virulence than any other country, and there was some doubt cast on the relationship in the campaign by the then candidate Trump,” Mr. Schumer said. “So, do the same thing with South Korea that he did with Japan, and do it quickly.”
At the same time, Mr. Schumer added that “the real answer to curtailing North Korea is China.”
“Like on so many other areas, China has been woefully inadequate,” he said. “They could squeeze North Korea economically. Ninety percent of [North Korean] imports and exports go through China, and I think we have to tell the Chinese that they have to put the wood to North Korea in a much more serious way than they have done so far.”
• Dave Boyer, Carlo Munoz and Tom Howell Jr. contributed to this report.