North Korea's Latest Provocation

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un watches a military drill.
North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un watches a military drill.Reuters

North Korea launched a ballistic missile early Saturday morning (local time) that reportedly exploded seconds after it took off. But whether or not the missile test was successful, it will undoubtedly contribute to ongoing tensions over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, especially since the U.S. Navy directed a carrier strike group to the region earlier this month as a show of force.

The South Korean news agency Yonhap confirmed the missile test with South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff. The type of missile tested was not known, but it reportedly launched at 5:30 a.m. local time from a site in South Pyongan Province. In a terse statement, the White House said it was aware of the test, and that the president had been briefed. U.S. President Donald Trump had previously ordered the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier and a nuclear submarine to the area, and both are reportedly in position near the Korean Peninsula. Earlier this week the U.S. also deployed the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile-defense system to South Korea. U.S. officials have said the system will be operational within days.

For some two decades North Korea has been developing its nuclear capabilities, and some experts believe it will have the missile technology necessary to deliver a warhead to the West Coast of the United States within a few years. This is the second failed missile test in less than a week, and both of the missiles tested were said to be short- to medium-range. Still, the Trump administration has responded to recent North Korean provocations with more aggressive rhetoric than that used by his predecessor. As my colleague Krishnadev Calamur wrote Friday morning:

[The tests] prompted Rex Tillerson, the U.S. secretary of state, to say as recently as six weeks ago that the U.S. would not talk to North Korea until it renounced nuclear weapons; Vice President Mike Pence to declare as over the Obama-era policy of “strategic patience” with North Korea; and to warn Pyongyang “not to test [Trump’s] resolve” after the U.S. fired missiles at a target in Syria in response to a chemical-weapons attack by the Assad regime and dropped the “mother of all bombs” against ISIS in Afghanistan.

That language fueled speculation that the U.S. was preparing for a military operation against North Korea. But earlier this week, Admiral Harry Harris, the head of U.S. Pacific Command, told the House Armed Services Committee the U.S. should act appropriately “in order to bring Kim Jong-Un to his senses, not his knees.” Those remarks were followed by the joint statement from Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats.

Trump told Reuters on Thursday, “There is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea. Absolutely.”

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But the president has not ruled out diplomacy. During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to the U.S., Trump asked for help in addressing the North Korea crisis—after having criticized China during the campaign for not doing enough to solve the problem.  Trump has since declared that China was “trying very hard.”

In February, China banned North Korean coal shipments, the county’s largest export. Tillerson also told Reuters earlier this week that China had threatened further unilateral sanctions if Pyongyang conducted more nuclear tests, although he did not say when this threat was made.