The Trump administration and the international community on Wednesday were weighing a range of bad policy options after North Korea’s ballistic missile program cleared a dangerous milestone this week, leaving the White House and its allies scrambling for diplomatic — and potentially military — solutions to curb Pyongyang’s increasingly potent nuclear capabilities.
With President Trump traveling to Poland and on to Germany for the Group of 20 summit Wednesday, the sharpest U.S. response came from Nikki Haley, ambassador to the United Nations, who said the U.S. would not rule out a military response and was preparing a package of punishments for the Security Council to consider.
With its Tuesday test-firing of an intercontinental ballistic missile that U.S. analysts say has the potential to deliver a nuclear warhead to Alaska and U.S. allies across East Asia, Pyongyang was “quickly closing off the possibility of a diplomatic solution,” Mrs. Haley told an emergency meeting of the Security Council.
“One of our capabilities lies with our considerable military forces. We will use them if we must, but we prefer not to have to go in that direction,” she said.
South Korean Defense Minister Han Min-koo warned that North Korea’s continued pursuit of long-range nuclear weapons would ultimately end with the regime’s “self-destruction” and that U.S. and South Korean forces were coordinating closely on a response to any further provocation by the North.
“If the North Korean regime presses ahead with reckless provocations, it would face stern sanctions from the international community and, in the end, its self-destruction,” Mr. Han told a session of the National Assembly’s defense committee, Yonghap News reported.
“We are keeping close tabs on the North’s movement in close cooperation with the U.S. and preparing — based on the South Korea-U.S. alliance — to respond sternly to any provocation,” he said.
In a show of force, U.S. and South Korean troops fired “deep strike” precision missiles off South Korea’s east coast Wednesday, The Associated Press reported. South Korea’s military later released previously shot video showing the test-firing of sophisticated South Korean missiles and a computer-generated image depicting a North Korean flag in flames with the backdrop of a major building in Pyongyang.
In unusually blunt language, Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, who commands U.S. troops stationed in Seoul, said the message behind the precision missile firing was that Pyongyang was playing with fire in assuming the U.S. would not strike back at some point.
“Self-restraint, which is a choice, is all that separates armistice and war ,” the general told reporters. “It would be a grave mistake for anyone to believe anything to the contrary.”
Russia and China have floated their own plan to curb the North’s nuclear and missile programs in exchange for an end to U.S.-South Korean military exercises and pressure on Pyongyang, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said both countries would oppose a punitive approach through the U.N. backed by the threat of military force.
“For Russia and China, it is perfectly clear that any attempt to justify a military decision, using U.N. Security Council resolutions as a pretext, is unacceptable, which will lead to unpredictable consequences in the region,” Mr. Lavrov told reporters in Moscow.
Pentagon and private analysts were still trying to pin down the capabilities of the solid-fuel, two-stage Hwasong-14 missile, seen as a surprisingly quick advance in the sophistication of the North’s missile capabilities.
The ICBM flew higher and farther than any previous test shots, U.S. and South Korean officials confirmed. Traveling a distance of over 500 miles and reaching a peak height of 1,700 miles, the 37-minute test shot ended when the missile landed in the East Sea/Sea of Japan off the Japanese coastline. While technologically significant, the missile shot also sent a clear signal to Washington, Tokyo and Seoul that Pyongyang is inching ever closer to a missile capable of hitting across the Pacific and possibly into the U.S. mainland.
Although the missile landed harmlessly in the sea, U.S. officials said the North’s test was a reckless event in a densely populated region filled with critical trade sea lanes.
Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis called the test “destabilizing and unlawful” and said the missile was “not one we’ve seen before” from the North Korean military.
“It is also dangerous,” the captain told reporters. “This missile flew throughout busy airspace used by commercial airliners. It flew into space; it landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone in an area that’s used by commercial and fishing vessels. All of this was completely uncoordinated.”
The North Korean missile launch poses a fresh set of challenges for Mr. Trump, whose tough rhetoric over Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions and efforts to cajole China into cutting off its neighbor’s economic lifeline have done little to stop North Korean leader Kim Jong-un from pressing forward.
China accounts for some 90 percent of North Korea’s external trade, and Mr. Trump in a tweet Wednesday morning cited a 37 percent jump in bilateral trade between the two in the first quarter of 2017. “So much for China working with us,” he said.
Mrs. Haley said increased economic pressure on countries such as China that maintain trade ties with the North may be next on Washington’s agenda.
Some countries, she said, “would also like to continue their trade arrangements with the United States. That’s not going to happen. Our attitude on trade changes when countries do not take international security threats seriously.”
Analysts said the options could include cutting off access to hard currency to North Korea, restricting oil shipments to its military and weapons programs, and increasing air and maritime restrictions.
Mr. Trump plans a series of meetings on the sidelines of this week’s G-20 gathering in Hamburg, Germany, including a trilateral meeting with the leaders of South Korea and Japan and one-on-one meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In contrast to Mrs. Haley’s more aggressive rhetoric, the White House on Wednesday stuck to a more muted tone when asked about the missile. “President Trump stressed the need for all countries to fully implement U.N. Security Council resolutions on North Korea, stop hosting North Korean guest workers, and stop providing economic or military benefits to North Korea,” the White House said while Mr. Trump was en route to Poland.
Despite the rebukes and condemnation from the U.S. and partner nations against the North Korean regime for its test shot Tuesday, Pyongyang continues to see its burgeoning military programs as the only way to counter what it considers an increasing U.S. military presence on the peninsula and the prospect of a campaign to drive the Kim regime from power.
A ‘package of gifts’
The deployment of the U.S. Thermal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system in South Korea, coupled with an increase in joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises, has coincided with Pyongyang’s saber-rattling. Mr. Kim told state-run news outlet KCNA that his country would refuse any negotiations with the U.S. or its allies over the regime’s nuclear program until Washington abandons its “hostile policies” toward the north, Reuters reported.
The North Korean dictator also chided the White House, telling KCNA that Tuesday’s missile test was a “package of gifts” from Pyongyang to the U.S. to mark the July Fourth holiday.
There remain questions about the reliability of the new North Korean missile, and analysts say Pyongyang has yet to master the technology to make a nuclear warhead small enough to be delivered by the ICBM.
“There are still limits for us to conclude that the North has been successful in its ICBM development,” South Korea’s Mr. Han told lawmakers in Seoul on Wednesday.
But he said the missile test enhanced the need for the South to work with the U.S. on completing the THAAD defense system installation — comments that ran contrary to those of recently elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has delayed the THAAD deployments amid public outcry over the weapon’s placement in the country.
Arriving in Berlin on Wednesday ahead of the G-20 summit, Mr. Moon called the test “a big threat and provocation.” He said the international community must now consider “more intensive possibilities of sanctions.”
Inside the Pentagon, defense officials moved to reassure military leaders in the Pacific that U.S. forces can safeguard its allies.
“We do have confidence in our ability to defend against the limited threat, the nascent threat that is there,” Capt. Davis told reporters. Last month, U.S. military leaders conducted the first ever live-fire test of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system. Aside from American hardware on the ground in the peninsula, joint military operations between American and South Korean ground forces continued unabated.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.
• Carlo Muñoz can be reached at email@example.com.
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