North Korea’s launch of a ballistic missile this past weekend likely signals the beginning of the end of a four-month respite from its testing of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons. It’s nothing to lose our heads about, not yet at least. Assertions that this test poses the first big foreign-policy challenge for the Trump administration have a breathless quality: The missile flew roughly 300 miles before falling in the sea, well short of Japan’s territorial waters. It is uncertain what type of missile was tested, but the United States Strategic Command issued a statement that the system “did not pose a threat to North America.” Pyongyang already has hundreds of short- and medium-range missiles in its inventory, as well as the capability to hit U.S. military targets throughout the Pacific theater and perhaps as far away as Guam. Thus, the test did not indicate a dramatic improvement in North Korean military capabilities.
But the clock may be running out on the administration’s ability to prevent significant advances in the North’s development of more-capable missiles and nuclear weapons. Last week’s test could herald the beginning of a strategy in which Pyongyang gradually escalates provocations during the Trump administration. The real tipping point for the Trump administration is likely to come within the next few months, when the United States and South Korea conduct combined annual military exercises called “Key Resolve.” In November, at an unofficial meeting with former U.S. government officials in Geneva, North Korean officials made it clear that, while Pyongyang was going to take a “wait and see” attitude toward the newly elected President Trump, its patience would not last forever and might not last past the joint exercise.