- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 4, 2017

It was a Fourth of July firework that President Trump once vowed would never get off the ground, but the intercontinental Hwasong-14 missile launched Tuesday by North Korea has the potential to alter permanently the balance of power in East Asia.

U.S. and international military analysts were still scrambling to determine the exact capabilities of the missile, but there was little question Pyongyang had made a quantum leap in its military reach, with the 37-minute flight that soared 1,700 miles into the atmosphere before landing 500 miles to the east in the East Sea/Sea of Japan.

On a flatter trajectory, analysts say, the same missile could threaten all of Alaska.

Even as the launch was being studied, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson appeared to confirm Tuesday night that the U.S. government believes that North Korea possesses an intercontinental ballistic missile.

“Testing an ICBM represents a new escalation of the threat to the U.S., our allies and partners, and the world,” Mr. Tillerson said in a statement.

In what could be seen as an expression of mounting U.S. frustration with China, Mr. Tillerson said, “Any country that hosts North Korean guest workers, provides any economic or military benefits or fails to fully implement U.N. Security Council resolutions is aiding and abetting a dangerous regime.”

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While the regime of Kim Jong-un has long pursued nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them, the test Tuesday was “far more successful than expected,” U.S. missile specialist John Schilling of the North Korean monitoring program 38 North told the Reuters news agency.

Many North Korea watchers believed the regime was years away from achieving what it did Tuesday.

The Trump administration and governments around the region were quick to condemn the missile launch, but also faced the hard reality that there was little short of military action that would force North Korea to back down.

Economically isolated and under the dictatorial control of the Kim regime, Pyongyang has frustrated multiple U.S. presidents who have tried to slow down its drive for nuclear weapons.

“There is no good option here,” former acting CIA Director Michael J. Morell told “CBS This Morning.” “There is no option to [take out the North’s nuclear programs] that wouldn’t start a second Korean war and wouldn’t raise the possibility of [Mr. Kim] using nuclear weapons against his neighbors.”

Japan, South Korea and the U.S. have scheduled an emergency meeting at the Group of 20 summit this week in Hamburg, Germany. The North’s provocative military activities already figured to be a major topic of conversation.

In a series of tweets before he took office, Mr. Trump predicted that North Korea’s acquisition of a nuclear bomb that could threaten the U.S. mainland “won’t happen.” He belittled Mr. Kim and again expressed frustration that China, the North’s economic lifeline and sole ally, had failed to rein in its troublesome neighbor.

On Monday, Mr. Trump tweeted, “Does this guy have anything better to do with his life?”

The president, who has said the “era of strategic patience” with the North is over, suggested that regional allies of China and the U.S. now have a greater incentive to take a tough approach. “Hard to believe South Korea and Japan will put up with this much longer. Perhaps China will put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all.”

One American response came swiftly as the U.S. 8th Army said in a statement that the U.S. and South Korean militaries fired precision “deep strike” missiles in response. The missiles landed in South Korea’s territorial waters, the statement said.

But with the U.N. Security Council expected to take up the North Korean missile launch at a closed-door session Wednesday, China and Russia implied that Washington’s moves were exacerbating the crisis.

China’s role is indispensable,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said after calling the North’s missile tests a clear violation of U.N. sanctions. “We hope all sides can meet each other halfway.”

In a joint statement, China and Russia are proposing that the North agree to suspend its ballistic missile testing program in exchange for a halt to joint South Korean-U.S. military exercises.

The Pentagon says the exercises are vital to protect its ally, which is living under the threat of Pyongyang’s conventional military forces. North Korea has condemned the exercises as a rehearsal for an invasion.

Beijing and Moscow also took the opportunity to condemn the newly installed U.S. THAAD missile defense system in South Korea, which both countries fear can be used against their missiles.

The launch was the 12th this year for North Korea, but the regime clearly saw the range and scope of the Hwasong-14 as a possible game-changer.

Footage on state-controlled TV showed Mr. Kim and his generals monitoring the test in real time, and the female newscaster who typically announces such breakthroughs said the purported home-grown ICBM was a “glistening miracle” that demonstrated the “unwithering power of our state.”

While the world has condemned the North’s nuclear and missile programs as deeply destabilizing, the North Koreans insisted they were acting in self-defense.

As a nuclear power with an ICBM “capable of hitting any part of the world,” North Korea “will fundamentally terminate the U.S. nuclear war threats and blackmail and credibly protect the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula and the region,” Pyongyang said in a statement read on national TV.

North Korean officials said the missile was launched at an unusually high trajectory to keep it from hitting any other countries in the region. On a flatter trajectory, military analysts calculated Tuesday, the missile could fly more than 4,000 miles.

Despite the North’s boasting, Western analysts say Pyongyang still faces significant technical hurdles in improving the reliability of its missiles and in fashioning a nuclear device small enough to fit on the missile.

Two tests this year were abruptly terminated shortly after launch in what are still unexplained circumstances.

The latest test began at approximately 9:40 a.m. local time Tuesday from an airfield near the northwestern town of Kusong. Japanese officials said they believe the missile landed in the ocean inside Japan’s exclusive economic zone — a target possibly chosen to make recovery and analysis of the missile hard for the U.S. and its allies.

Aside from Mr. Trump’s tweets and Mr. Tillerson’s statement, the U.S. administration largely kept to its policy of not officially reacting to North Korean missile tests. With Congress in recess for the Fourth of July, the reaction on Capitol Hill was muted too.

Sen. Edward J. Markey, the Massachusetts Democrat who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, pressed Mr. Trump in a statement to consider direct diplomacy with the North and “increased economic sanctions pressure from China.”

Mr. Trump “must realize that there is no military solution to this threat,” Mr. Markey said. “Unilateral action will only escalate tension, increase the paranoia of Kim Jong-un and bring us closer to what everyone agrees would be a catastrophic war.”

Private analysts largely agreed that the U.S. and its allies were facing a series of bad choices over what to do about North Korea, and that time was slipping away.

Patrick Cronin, an Asia analyst with the Center for a New American Security, told The Associated Press that Mr. Trump was probably “coming to the point of no return” with North Korea.

“We either go to the diplomatic table with Kim Jong-un or we do take some course of action,” Mr. Cronin said. “In all probability, we do both.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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