A t-shirt featuring featuring U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is displayed for sale at a store in Hanoi, Vietnam. (Photographer: Justin Chin/Bloomberg)  

U.S. Risks Emboldening Kim With Muted Response to Missile Test

(Bloomberg) -- Kim Jong Un’s weekend missile launch -- and the U.S.’s muted reaction -- heralds a new, riskier phase in North Korean efforts to test President Donald Trump’s limits in stalled nuclear talks.

On Saturday, Kim oversaw a military exercise that non-proliferation experts said included the launch of a short-range ballistic missile -- a test banned under United Nations sanctions and North Korea’s first such provocation since November 2017. Rather than condemn the move, U.S. and South Korean officials played down the threat, with U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo noting the weapons “were relatively short range.”

U.S. Risks Emboldening Kim With Muted Response to Missile Test

While that may help preserve nuclear talks with Kim, North Korea analysts warned that it could be seen by the regime as a green light for similar tests going forward. The launch followed Kim’s pledges to push back against international economic sanctions after Trump walked away from their nuclear summit in Hanoi in February.

“North Korea will likely continue to escalate tensions and put public pressure on Washington absent a new diplomatic initiative from the United States or South Korea,” said Mintaro Oba, a former U.S. diplomat who worked on Korean Peninsula issues. “Given the fact that North Korea paid no real cost for these launches in Washington or in the region, Pyongyang will probably feel emboldened and justified in conducting shorter-range launches in the future.”

New Missile

Kim’s live-fire military exercise, in which at least one ballistic missile and other lesser rockets were fired off the country’s eastern coast, challenged the U.S. and South Korea to craft a response that wouldn’t scuttle talks. Trump has often cited North Korea’s decision to refrain from tests of longer-range ballistic missiles that could threaten the U.S. to justify his decision to continue negotiations despite little progress toward disarmament.

The missile highlighted in North Korea state media reports appeared to be a new solid-fuel ballistic missile similar to a Russian Iskander, said Melissa Hanham, a non-proliferation expert and director of the One Earth Future Foundation’s Datayo Project. North Korea had unveiled a similar weapon, which could be stored while fueled, deployed and fired with less detection time, during a military parade in February 2018.

In response, Washington and Seoul stressed the limited nature of the weapons, even though the missile could potentially deliver a nuclear warhead to South Korea. Pompeo told Fox News Sunday that Kim’s testing freeze was “very focused on intercontinental missile systems, the ones that threaten the U.S.,” implying that a shorter-range weapon was tolerable.

Hong Young-pyo, the floor leader of South Korea’s ruling party, similarly told members Tuesday that the test was “not a serious issue that threatens inter-Korean ties and U.S.-South Korea relations,” according to the Chosun Ilbo newspaper.

South Korea’s so-called “peace stocks,” or companies with business ties to North Korea, declined Tuesday, the first trading day since the weekend weapons test. Among the biggest losers were Hyundai Rotem Co., a maker of train cars, and Hyundai Elevator Co., which both fell as much as 3.8 percent.

No Provocation

Similarly, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service determined that Saturday’s test was intended to pressure foreign countries and not a provocation, the Yonhap News Agency reported Monday, citing a lawmaker briefed on the launch. After first calling the weapons tested “missiles,” the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff later changed its description to “projectiles.”

At the United Nations Security Council, which has barred ballistic missile tests by North Korea, no meeting on the latest launches was planned, diplomats said.

Chun Yungwoo, South Korea’s former top envoy to international nuclear talks with North Korea, said the efforts to play down the launches were “understandable.” The test came days before the U.S.’s top nuclear envoy, Stephen Biegun, was expected to arrive in the region for talks with South Korean and Japanese officials.

“A culture of impunity has been built up over short-range ballistic missiles,” Chun said. “Pompeo sees no point in escalating this launch into endangering the already fragile process of nuclear negotiation.”

Escalation Risk

The risk is that North Korea further escalates in its efforts to get Trump’s attention and extract a better offer from the U.S. Over the years, it has conducted scores of weapons tests, usually calculated to avoid provoking military action, further UN Security Council sanctions or annoying backers such as China and Russia.

U.S. Risks Emboldening Kim With Muted Response to Missile Test

“North Korea enjoys dancing in the gray zone between war and peace by engaging in aggressive actions without risking escalation or provoking a military response from Washington,” said Duyeon Kim, a Seoul-based specialist on North Korea at the Center for a New American Security.

Such tests -- particularly of new weapons -- can alarm the region and provide the regime valuable information to make its arsenal more lethal and harder to destroy in the event of any conflict. Kim could also seek to test Trump’s bottom line with a satellite launch that he could argue serves a civilian purpose while helping developing intercontinental-ballistic-missile engines and guidance systems.

“Even if we internally concur with Kim that the testing moratorium only applies to ICBMs, we shouldn’t publicly say it, because it essentially says we will tolerate him testing anything short of that,” said Vipin Narang, an associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a member of its security studies program. “Tests of even those systems going forward can generate a real crisis and pose a significant threat to our allies, and our forces in the region.”

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