TOKYO (AP) - Keeping North Korea from having a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile has long been considered a key U.S. red line, and one the North has thumbed its nose at for years. Its Fourth of July ICBM launch is just the latest step in its long march toward, and maybe over, that line.
But while U.S. President Donald Trump appeared to be caught somewhat off guard by the launch, musing on Twitter over why North Korean leader Kim Jong Un doesn’t have better things to do with his life, Kim and his regime have been clearly telegraphing their moves. And they have made one thing crystal clear: they have no intention of backing down.
North Korea says it has a sovereign right to develop a credible nuclear deterrent to what it calls the hostile policy of its archenemies in Washington, and has stridently refused any calls to give up the nuclear weapons and long-range missiles that are the “treasured sword” of its national defense.
The U.S. isn’t buying that argument. And it says all options are on the table.
KIM’S NEW YEAR RESOLUTION
Kim started the year off with a public vow to launch North Korea’s first ICBM.
He did it in his annual New Year’s address, a 30-minute televised speech in which he praised his scientists for successfully testing what North Korea says was its first hydrogen bomb, the second of two nuclear tests it conducted in 2016, and then saying preparations for launching an intercontinental ballistic missile had “reached the final stage.”
He did not explicitly say an ICBM test was imminent. But it was clear he was putting the possibility out there for a reaction.
Trump almost immediately gave him one.
“North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S.,” he tweeted on Jan. 3. “It won’t happen!”
A few days later, a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman declared through the state-run media that an ICBM “will be launched anytime and anywhere determined by the supreme headquarters” of the country. U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter responded that America would shoot down any North Korean missiles appearing to be headed toward the territory of the U.S. or its allies.
“THE WHOLE WORLD WILL SOON WITNESS”
As the North Koreans tell it, March was the breakthrough month for their domestic rocket engine industry.
North Korea conducted a ground test of a new type of high-thrust engine Kim hailed as “a great event of historic significance” for rocket building and efforts to develop “Korean-style strategic weapons.”
The “whole world will soon witness what eventful significance the great victory won today carries,” he added.
The test came as U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was on a swing through Asia and issuing some of Washington’s strongest warnings to North Korea since Trump took office. “We are exploring a new range of diplomatic, security and economic measures,” he said. “All options are on the table.”
North Korea, angry over ongoing U.S.-South Korea wargames, on March 6 also conducted a high-profile drill that sent a volley of four intermediate-range missiles within 200 kilometers (120 miles) of Japan’s shoreline. Japan hosts tens of thousands of U.S. troops.
“North Korea is behaving very badly,” Trump tweeted at around the same time. “They have been ‘playing’ the United States for years. China has done little to help!”
MISSILES ON PARADE
Tensions spiked in April as satellite images suggested that North Korea was preparing to conduct an underground nuclear test.
With the arrival of a U.S. aircraft carrier battle group in the area and another “armada” on the way, according to Trump, both sides traded threats of an escalation to war.
The test never happened, but North Korea did mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of national founder Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, with a spectacular military parade that featured more missiles than ever before, including some that had never been revealed in public.
The finale of the parade was the appearance of two camouflage-colored canisters on long mobile erector-launch vehicles. Such canisters are used for stealthy launches and although whatever was inside could not be seen, many experts believed the size suggested they could be used to carry a hitherto unknown ICBM.
The display created a significant buzz among experts that the actual ICBM launch might be next.
PUTTING ON THE FINAL TOUCHES
Increasingly concerned by the stepped-up pace of North Korea’s missile launches, the U.S. in early June tested its missile defense system. Washington called it a big success, with the interceptor launched from an air base in California “obliterating” a mock incoming missile over the Pacific Ocean.
The U.S. has about 450 of the missiles and each can travel about 8,000 miles (12,900 kilometers), but critics of the $244 million test said it didn’t confirm the U.S. could actually intercept a North Korean ICBM fired in war conditions. Only four of nine intercept attempts since 2004 have been successful.
The test also had no apparent impact on North Korea’s test schedule.
Though it had no official comment this time - and there were no tweets from Trump - the North conducted another engine test late last month that the U.S. reportedly identified as likely for an ICBM.
By that time, there could be little doubt.
North Korea was moving quickly to fulfil Kim’s New Year promise, and the window of opportunity to deter it was closing.
Talmadge is the AP’s North Korea bureau chief. Follow him on Twitter at ricTalmadge and on Instagram at erictalmadge.
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