Early Tuesday morning, North Korea provocatively flew a missile over Japan. Launched from a location near the capital of Pyongyang, it splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, east of the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. Upon launch, Japan’s authorities advised residents to take shelter.
The missile’s main target, however, appeared to be far away on the other side of the Pacific. That objective would be the credibility of President Donald Trump and that of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Tuesday’s test was a belligerent signal. North Korea’s missile launches are specifically prohibited by the Security Council, and the missile reached an altitude of only 340 miles, bracketing the Japanese homeland on both the way up and the way down. The North’s last missile overflying Japan was in 1998. It’s true the North has in the past launched rockets over the island nation—in 2009, 2012, and 2016—but they are arguably permissible and their trajectories were certainly not as provocative as that of Tuesday’s missile.
The launch of what appeared to be an intermediate-range missile capped off an extraordinary in-your-face media blast from Pyongyang.
Trust the Norks to make their adversaries seem naïve and perhaps just a little foolish. Last Tuesday, both Trump and Tillerson took victory laps. The secretary of State, after noting that Pyongyang had not done anything provocative since the Aug. 5 adoption of Security Council Resolution 2371, said the North Koreans had “demonstrated some level of restraint that we have not seen in the past.”
“Perhaps,” he said at the time, “we’re seeing a pathway to, sometime in the near future, to having some dialogue.”
Trump, for his part, was just as prematurely optimistic. On that same day, at his now-famous off-script rally in Phoenix, the president bragged about his North Korea policy. “Kim Jong Un, I respect the fact that I believe he is starting to respect us,” he said. “Maybe something positive can come about.”
On Saturday, something “came about,” but it was hardly positive from the Trump administration’s perspective. North Korea on that day fired a salvo of three short-range missiles. One blew up on launch, and the other two traveled about 155 miles before splashing down west of Japan.
Trump and Tillerson should have known that the lull would be short-lived. North Korea always does something provocative during the Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercises, the computer-simulation drills between the American and South Korean militaries. The drills this year began Aug. 21 and are scheduled to end the 31st.
In short, the North Koreans were bound to embarrass the president and his not-ready-for-the-world-stage secretary of state.
If the North Koreans were not having enough fun, they decided to further humiliate Trump. “The invincible naval forces are united in their feelings that they will bury the entirety of the U.S. under water if the U.S. brings in the cloud of war of aggression on this soil,” taunted Rodong Sinmun, the newspaper of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, a day before the American leader was scheduled to leave for Texas to comfort victims reeling from the flooding and devastation of Hurricane Harvey.
Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo immediately requested an emergency Security Council meeting to consider further measures against Pyongyang. The last set of sanctions, the seventh, have been correctly called the most stringent, but they still permit the North Koreans to retain significant streams of revenue from exports. As America’s U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley has said, the Kim regime uses its export revenue not for its people but for its weapons programs.
Up to now, the Trump administration has been content in sending only signals to Pyongyang with, for instance, the weak measures of Resolution 2371, and the symbolic Tuesday sanctions imposed on 16 Chinese, Russian, and Singaporean individuals and entities.
With Tuesday’s launch, Kim Jong Un has once again shown that he cannot be brought to his senses. It looks, therefore, time to bring his regime to its knees, maybe not yet with force but with crippling sanctions. The Saturday and Tuesday launches look like the lever for Trump and Tillerson to regain the initiative by putting in place the economic measures, like an embargo, to completely deny Kim the resources he uses for the most dangerous weapons program on earth.