- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 28, 2017

North Korea fired what may be its most sophisticated ballistic missile ever Tuesday, flouting President Trump’s threats and international efforts to halt the rogue nation’s nuclear weapons program and kicking off what national security experts say is likely the first in a surge of new tests from the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in the coming months.

The missile was tested in the wake of a 12-day East Asian tour by Mr. Trump focused largely on the North Korean threat, and just days after a top-level Chinese emissary traveled to Pyongyang for four days of talks, the first by a senior Chinese diplomat in two years. The timing suggests U.S. hopes that Beijing would rein in its troublesome neighbor and trading partner are fading.

While Mr. Trump at the White House tersely vowed that he would “take care of” the increasing North Korean threat, regional analysts said tensions will likely grow through February, when South Korea hosts the Winter Olympics. Pyongyang may seek to disrupt the international event with either a nuclear or major missile test.

“February will be the key month,” said Harry J. Kazianis, the head of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest in Washington. “That’s when the North Koreans can be expected to hold their biggest tests and, let’s face it, the media coverage is going to be insane if they do.”

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has told government officials to closely review whether the latest North Korean missile launch will affect South Korean efforts to successfully host the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.

U.S. officials said the latest test, carried out early Wednesday North Korea time, appeared to be of an intercontinental ballistic missile. The projectile evidently went for height rather than distance in order to assess its ability to withstand the rigors of re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

The test was the first by North Korea since mid-September but the 20th launch of a ballistic missile this year and apparently its third successful test of an ICBM following two launches in July.

The U.N. Security Council has scheduled an emergency meeting on the North’s launch, The Associated Press reported. Italy chairs the council, and its spokesman said the Wednesday afternoon meeting was requested by Japan, the U.S. and South Korea. At the White House, Mr. Trump conferred by phone with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korea’s Mr. Moon on Tuesday evening to discuss the next steps in the crisis.

While a Pentagon spokesman told reporters that the latest test “did not pose a threat to North America, our territories or our allies,” Defense Secretary James Mattis said it “went higher, frankly, than any previous shot” North Korea has taken.

Mr. Mattis added that South Korea had responded by firing “pinpoint missiles out into the water to make certain North Korea understands that they could be taken under fire by our ally.”

“But the bottom line,” he said, is that Pyongyang has not stopped its “effort to build a ballistic missile threat that endangers world peace, regional peace and threatens the United States.”

The missile reportedly launched from Sain Ni, North Korea, traveling about 6,020 miles in 53 minutes before splashing down in the East Sea/Sea of Japan in Japanese territorial waters.

Real-time briefing

Mr. Trump and his national security staff were briefed on the test in real time. The president told reporters he had engaged in a long discussion with Mr. Mattis.

“We will take care of it,” Mr. Trump said. “It is a situation that we will handle.”

He said the test would put more pressure on congressional Democrats who, he said, did not back his proposals for strong funding of the military.

But some Democrats said the launch underscored the lack of effective Trump administration strategy, and the president’s unwillingness to engage in serious diplomacy to ease the crisis.

North Korea’s latest missile test highlights the urgent need for the Trump administration to produce a coherent strategy,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, California Democrat and a member of the House Armed Services Committee. “We must be willing to sit down with North Korea to explore all options.”

The Trump administration has tried to pressure China, North Korea’s main trading partner and economic lifeline, to help contain Pyongyang. The administration also has imposed the stiffest economic sanctions to date, including some targeting Chinese banks that do business with state-controlled firms in Pyongyang.

About 30,000 U.S. troops are positioned in South Korea, which has been divided from the North since the early-1950s armistice that froze the Korean War.

Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said “diplomatic options remain viable and open, for now” and noted that U.S. and Canadian officials will convene a U.N. meeting among countries affected by Pyongyang’s provocations, including South Korea and Japan, “to discuss how the global community can counter North Korea’s threat to international peace.”

Japanese officials said the latest missile landed inside Japan’s exclusive economic zone, bordering territorial waters contested by South Korea, Taiwan and China. While Mr. Trump toned down his belligerent rhetoric while in South Korea this month, in Japan the president suggested that Tokyo should buy “massive amounts of military equipment” from the U.S. and should shoot down any North Korean missiles violating Japan’s airspace.

Mr. Kazianis downplayed the timing of Pyongyang’s test as a response to Mr. Trump’s trip or to U.S. overall strategy.

“The North Koreans have said their set policy is to do whatever it takes to get nuclear weapons that can hit the U.S. mainland,” he said in an interview. “This was another push toward that goal.”

He also defended the administration, saying it has “a clear strategy — and an old one — called ‘containment.’”

It’s different from that of so-called “strategic patience” embraced in the past because the sanctions being imposed by the Trump White House are “far more rigorous than any the Obama or George W. Bush administration every put in place,” Mr. Kazianis said. “I think a lot of people don’t like it because it isn’t going to produce immediate results. In the short and medium term, the North Koreans are going to continue testing weapons.”

He said Pyongyang was likely testing the “re-entry vehicle” for an ICBM, essentially to ensure that such a missile — if shot toward space — won’t disintegrate or malfunction upon returning to the Earth’s atmosphere. A reliable re-entry vehicle would be critical for North Korea should the nation succeed in fixing a miniaturized nuclear warhead to an ICBM.

“That’s the last hurdle they have to cross,” said Mr. Kazianis.

Dave Boyer contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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