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North Korea tests missiles for the second time in a week

It’s likely a message for South Korea and President Trump.

A man watches a television news screen showing a file footage of a North Korean missile launch, at a railway station in Seoul on July 25, 2019.
A man watches a television news screen showing a file footage of a North Korean missile launch, at a railway station in Seoul on July 25, 2019.
Jung Yeon-je/AFP/Getty Images

North Korea appears to have tested its second set of missiles in just a week — a sign that its displeasure with South Korea and the US is growing.

The South Korean military says its northern neighbor launched two short-range missiles near Wonsan, a city on the North Korea’s eastern coast, early Wednesday morning local time. They flew eastward about 155 miles and rose about 19 miles high.

“Our military is tracking and watching the related movement in preparation to additional launches, and is maintaining readiness posture,” South Korean armed forces said in a statement.

This isn’t an isolated incident. Pyongyang tested two short-range missiles last week — also from the same area — evidently as a message to Seoul not to go forward with a planned August military exercise. South Korea has not cancelled the drill, so North Korea may have chosen to send another message in the hope it would get through this time.

This latest round of missile tests is bad news for President Donald Trump.

The US and North Korea have made little progress in their diplomatic effort to reach a deal over dismantling Pyongyang’s nuclear program. North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un wants Trump to lift sanctions on his country before he gives up some of his weapons, and Trump wants Kim to give up nearly all of his weapons before he lifts the sanctions. As a result, the two sides remain locked in a stalemate.

Trump has long said that diplomatic efforts will continue as long as Kim doesn’t test nuclear weapons or intercontinental ballistic missiles. Since North Korea merely tested short-range missiles again, the president may not mind too much.

Yet some experts warn that ignoring these tests sends a troubling message to Kim: that he can get away with pretty much anything he wants as long as he doesn’t cross Trump’s red line.

Trump is letting North Korea get away with a lot

Just this month, North Korea unveiled a brand new submarine that could potentially launch nuclear weapons and conducted two missile tests for projectiles that could gravely threaten US allies South Korea and Japan.

Instead of condemning these these acts, the Trump administration has brushed them aside. The reason, experts tell me, is that the White House is singularly focused on making a nuclear deal — almost regardless of what North Korea does.

“Maybe they’re picking their battles to focus on resuming much-needed negotiations for a deal,” Duyeon Kim, a North Korea expert at the Center for a New American Security think tank in Washington, told me last week after Pyongyang’s missile test. “But if they continue to dismiss smaller missiles for long, they’re enabling Pyongyang to strengthen these dangerous weapons and telling South Korea and Americans living there that they don’t matter.”

Trump’s theory of the moment is that North Korea is more likely to dismantle its nuclear program as long as he and Kim remain friendly. That consideration seemingly outweighs almost anything else going on between the two countries.

“Trump’s desire to keep the diplomatic channel is alive is greater than his willingness to confront the dangers that come with North Korea’s advances in weapons technology,” David Kim, a North Korea expert at the Stimson Center in Washington, told me last week.

Trump, therefore, seems fine as long as Kim doesn’t test a nuclear bomb or a missile that could reach the United States. That gives Kim plenty of leeway to launch pretty much anything and everything up to Trump’s red line.

On one hand, it’s reasonable, and perhaps even prudent, for Trump and his administration not to overreact to Kim’s weaponry. It’s better not to blow up any chance of diplomatic progress over a few missile tests, no matter how threatening. On the other hand, some experts say the administration could do much more than brush off those provocations.

“They certainly don’t need to freak out,” said Duyeon Kim last week, “but a proportionate response doesn’t have to kill diplomacy either.”