North Korea’s aggressive ballistic missile launch over Japan on Monday solicited concerned — yet surprisingly measured — reactions from Japan, South Korea, and even President Donald Trump.
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called the launch “an unprecedented serious and grave threat to Japan” and immediately called for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council. South Korea dropped bombs near its border with North Korea to show off its military capabilities.
And in an uncharacteristically subdued statement, Trump said “all options are on the table” regarding North Korea — something his administration already said before.
The good news is it looks like war isn’t imminent. All countries are posturing at the moment, but so far there are no indications they are mobilizing for a fight.
The real question, though, is what happens next. President Trump will be in Texas overseeing Hurricane Harvey relief efforts, which may keep him distracted enough to refrain from tweeting bellicose statements about North Korea.
America’s response was surprisingly subdued
On August 8, Trump promised to unleash “fire and fury” on North Korea if it continued to threaten the US. And while the missile yesterday didn’t threaten America, as the Pentagon noted, the administration’s response is still strikingly subdued.
“Threatening and destabilizing actions only increase the North Korean regime’s isolation in the region and among all nations of the world,” Trump said in a statement this morning. “All options are on the table.”
That may sound scary, but it’s not a change from what the administration said before. The US hasn’t ruled out a military strike on North Korea yet, so all options were already on the table.
“While diplomacy is our preferred means of changing North Korea’s course of action, it is backed by military options,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wrote in the Wall Street Journal on August 13. And Vice President Mike Pence said on August 16 that “all options are on the table” for dealing with North Korea.
On August 22, Tillerson told reporters he was encouraged that North Korea hadn’t done anything provocative since the UN slapped strong sanctions on the country on August 5. Perhaps it was a signal North Korea wanted to negotiate with the US, the secretary continued. And during a rally in Phoenix on August 23, Trump said he thought Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s leader, was “starting to respect” the United States.
But after launching this missile, North Korea may have closed any doors that were potentially open — at least for now.
Japan considered the launch “the most serious and grave threat ever to us”
Japan has seemed a bit player in the North Korean drama in recent months. That was always odd as the country is within range of North Korean weapons. But now it’s back in the fray after the missile flew into its airspace yesterday.
“We'll make the utmost effort to protect the public,” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters immediately after the launch as he headed into a hastily called national security meeting. Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said this was a huge threat to his country.
"We have to say that this morning's launch by the North is the most serious and grave threat ever to us, as the missile seems to have passed through our airspace," Suga told reporters after the launch. "It could endanger peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region."
Those are strong words from these Japanese leaders. Japan has seen North Korean missiles fly over it twice in the past in 1998 and 2009. But this time it’s different. The supposed missile has the ability to carry a nuclear weapon. As it traveled, the Japanese government requested its citizens to “evacuate to a sturdy building or basement.”
Japan was already motivated to stop North Korea’s program. It may be even more inspired to do so now.
South Korea is flying planes and dropping bombs
South Korea is the country most directly threatened by North Korea. So when Kim Jong Un makes a belligerent move, South Korea watches closely and reacts strongly — in this case, very strongly.
Seoul flew four fighter jets near the inter-Korean border and dropped eight 2,000 pound bombs on a South Korean training ground. Yoon Young-chan, a presidential spokesperson, said at a press conference that South Korean President Moon Jae-in wanted "to showcase a strong punishment capability against the North."
But these likely aren’t the opening salvos of a larger war. In fact, Moon insisted in the past that only his country can decide if a fight with North Korea is warranted. “Only the Republic of Korea can make the decision for military action on the Korean Peninsula,” he said on August 15 in a nationally televised address. “Without the consent of the Republic of Korea, no country can determine to take military action.”
Moon came into office wanting closer ties with North Korea, hoping to talk more with Pyongyang. But North Korea’s improving missile and nuclear programs worry the South Korean leader. Even top officials in South Korea’s more hawkish opposition party believe he’s begun to change his views.
“The Moon government tried to talk with North Korea on nuclear missile matters since his inauguration, but the North simply replied with new missiles,” Lee Jae Yel, the director-general of the International Relations Bureau of the Liberty Korea Party, told me. “That means dialogue for negotiation is not a proper tool for solving the problem. The government has begun to realize the reality.”
How Moon responds to Pyongyang’s continued antagonism is one of the key things to watch during the whole North Korea crisis.
The administration’s response is quite measured
Leaders of the US, South Korea, and Japan are acting in the usual manner after an unusual provocation.
Trump called Abe on August 28 and both leaders agreed to “increase pressure on North Korea,” according to a readout of their conversation. And Tillerson called his South Korean counterpart yesterday, as well. They promised to “sternly” take action against North Korea during a UN Security Council meeting soon.
During tense times, the normality of these responses is noteworthy. But of course, all of this could change with an ill-timed and belligerent tweet.