- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 5, 2019

The Trump administration on Sunday downplayed North Korea’s weapons tests, vowing to press on with its diplomatic outreach even as lawmakers — including some of President Trump’s closest Republican allies — warned that the weekend missile launches strained the fragile relationship between Washington and Pyongyang.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the administration is evaluating the tests, which included an apparent short-range ballistic missile that South Korean officials believe could violate Pyongyang’s commitment to cease all “hostile acts” on the peninsula.

State-run media in North Korea on Sunday showed the country’s dictator, Kim Jong-un, personally observing the tests and declaring them essential to ensuring “the security of the people from the threats and invasion by any forces.”

SEE ALSO: Kim Jong-un puts troops on ‘high alert’ amid live-fire missile drills

The tests come at a crucial moment for the White House and show that Mr. Kim is growing frustrated with denuclearization talks. Mr. Trump in February abruptly left a face-to-face meeting with Mr. Kim after North Korea demanded full relief from economic sanctions without committing to permanently end its nuclear weapons program.

Negotiations largely have been at a standstill since then, but Mr. Pompeo stressed that the administration is confident a denuclearization deal is within reach. He said the weapons tests will have little impact on talks.

“We still believe there is a path forward where Chairman Kim can denuclearize without [the U.S.] resorting to anything beyond diplomacy,” Mr. Pompeo told CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday. “We are full speed ahead in trying to work with the North Koreans to diplomatically achieve the verified denuclearization on the peninsula.”

But there was much greater skepticism in Washington and Seoul over the weekend. South Korean officials held an emergency meeting Saturday and said they were “very concerned” about the tests, which involved a weapon capable of striking targets more than 300 miles away.

U.S. lawmakers also sounded the alarm. Despite praise for Mr. Trump’s unprecedented diplomacy, they urged caution and said Mr. Kim’s recent actions raise serious questions about the president’s approach toward securing a deal.

“I appreciate the historic efforts President Trump and his team have made to solve the North Korean nuclear threat peacefully. The president has been personally engaged in an unprecedented manner and shown a willingness to find a win-win solution,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, tweeted late Saturday.

“The actions taken by North Korea in restarting missile tests possibly changes the equation in a dangerous and dramatic fashion,” said another tweet by Mr. Graham, a widely respected foreign policy voice within the Republican Party who has become a close ally and confidant of the president.

Other Republicans said Mr. Trump should revamp his strategy after Mr. Kim’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the missile test.

“Kim’s provocations after his summit with Putin tell you all you need to know about North Korea’s ‘commitment’ to denuclearization and about Putin’s ‘desire’ for peace,” Sen. Ben Sasse, Nebraska Republican, said in a statement. “These two murderous tyrants have no interest in peace and stability. Americans must remain clear-eyed about who our friends really are and realistic about empty promises from adversaries.”

Democrats said the missile testing proves Mr. Trump’s approach isn’t working.

“My problem with how President Trump has handled this is not that he has had meetings. It’s that there isn’t a plan and there isn’t a real negotiation tactic and he is not working with our allies,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota Democrat and 2020 presidential candidate, told CNN’s “State of the Union.”

But Mr. Trump remained committed to his policy of diplomacy and his attempts to develop a positive personal relationship with the North Korean leader.

“Anything in this very interesting world is possible, but I believe that Kim Jong Un fully realizes the great economic potential of North Korea, & will do nothing to interfere or end it,” the president tweeted Saturday. “He also knows that I am with him & does not want to break his promise to me. Deal will happen!”

South Korean analysts told The Associated Press that one of the weapons appears to be modeled after Russia’s 9K720 Iskander mobile short-range ballistic missile system, which can be maneuvered during flight to make it less vulnerable to anti-missile technology.

It was not clear whether the launch would violate a 2017 agreement in which Mr. Kim promised to halt most major missile tests. That year, North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking the U.S. mainland.

After Mr. Trump in 2017 famously threatened to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea if it did not change course, the two sides began grueling behind-the-scenes diplomatic negotiations that ultimately led to the first Trump-Kim summit in Singapore last summer.

That meeting, however, did not produce a tangible, comprehensive denuclearization agreement, nor did the follow-up meeting in February in Hanoi, Vietnam.

While U.S. officials remain optimistic, media reports out of Pyongyang on Sunday suggested that Mr. Kim is resuming a more aggressive stance.

“Praising the People’s Army for its excellent operation of modern large-caliber long-range multiple rocket launchers and tactical guided weapons, [Mr. Kim] said that all the service members are master gunners and they are capable of carrying out duty to promptly tackle any situation,” the Korean Central News Agency said.

“He stressed the need for all the service members to keep high alert posture and more dynamically wage the drive to increase the combat ability so as to defend the political sovereignty and economic self-sustenance of the country and … the security of the people from the threats and invasion by any forces,” the state-run outlet said.

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