- The Washington Times - Monday, March 6, 2017

Just when President Trump didn’t need it, North Korea presented him with a new crisis Monday by testing four ballistic missiles — one of which crashed into waters less than 200 miles from Japanese shores — prompting harsh warnings from around the globe and a response from the White House.

Mr. Trump spoke Monday evening with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Hwang Kyo-Ahn, South Korea’s acting president.

According to a White House statement, Mr. Trump “emphasized the United States’ ironclad commitment to stand with Japan and South Korea in the face of the serious threat posed by North Korea,” and said the U.S. “is taking steps to further enhance our ability to deter and defend against North Korea’s ballistic missiles.”

But as administration officials condemned the launches, sent defensive missiles to South Korea and worked to request a U.N. Security Council meeting on the situation this week, the White House was scrambling to conduct a basic North Korea policy review, and was woefully behind on appointing personnel to drive it.

“The North Koreans are basically making the policy for the administration,” said Victor Cha, who served as a top North Korea adviser under President George W. Bush, and whom Mr. Trump is rumored to be considering for a high-level Asia policy position.

Mr. Cha said in an interview Monday that by carrying out the wave of ballistic missile tests, along with a test last month, Pyongyang is leaving the new administration little room to respond beyond calling for more sanctions against North Korea.

While he said the White House may be staying quiet to avoid the appearance of being “led around by the nose by North Korea’s provocations,” Mr. Cha added that the administration is at a disadvantage because it is not fully staffed to conduct a full-throttled review of U.S. policy toward Pyongyang.

The situation, he said, is compounded by political chaos gripping South Korea.

South Korea’s Constitutional Court is due to rule soon on whether to uphold parliament’s December impeachment of President Park Geun-hye, who is accused of colluding with a friend to take bribes from Samsung Group, a multinational corporation in Seoul.

The scandal has widened domestic political divisions in Seoul over the alliance with the U.S., particularly with regard to Ms. Park’s agreement last year with the Obama administration to let Washington deploy a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile shield in South Korea.

That move rattled Russia and China, the latter being both a key South Korean trading partner and North Korea’s only significant ally.

Both the U.S. and South Korean militaries said Monday night U.S. time that components needed to set up the anti-missile defense system have arrived in South Korea within the previous 24 hours.

“Continued provocative actions by North Korea, to include yesterday’s launch of multiple missiles, only confirm the prudence of our alliance decision last year to deploy THAAD to South Korea,” Adm. Harry Harris, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, said in a statement.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer said the launches were “consistent with North Korea’s long history of provocative behavior” and that the U.S. “stands with our allies in the face of this very serious threat.”

It was not immediately clear exactly what type of ballistic missiles were fired. Yonhap said four missiles were launched from a single site in North Korea at 7:34 a.m. and may have been Scud missiles with a range of up to 430 miles, or Rodong missiles with a range of more than 900 miles.

The projectiles flew about 620 miles from the North Korean mainland. Three landed in waters that Japan claims as its exclusive economic zone, and at least one crashed into the sea just 190 miles off Japan’s northwestern coast. Agence France-Presse cited North Korea’s state media arm as reporting that the missile tests were part of a training exercise for a strike against some 50,000 U.S. forces based in Japan.

Last month North Korea test-fired what intelligence officials described as a new type of intermediate-range ballistic missile. The Feb. 12 launch was the first major provocation by Pyongyang since Mr. Trump took office, just as the president was dining with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Florida.

Analysts generally agreed that the launches were in retaliation for the large annual U.S.-South Korean military drills underway that North Korea insists are invasion rehearsals. Mr. Cha said he expects more missile tests while the drills continue through late April.

⦁ Dave Boyer contributed to this report.

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