When North Korea launched a ballistic missile toward northern Japan’s Hokkaido Island late Monday, its trajectory was initially unclear. Fearing the worst, the Japanese government interrupted television programming and issued digital alerts advising locals to find shelter. Though the missile ultimately flew over Japan and landed in the northern Pacific Ocean after a roughly 1,700-mile journey, the flyover was a powerful symbol of North Korea’s resolute effort to develop its missile program in spite of longstanding international opposition.
North Korea has flown projectiles over Japan twice before. The first instance, in 1998, came with no warning; North Korea gave advance notice of the second, in 2009. The country couched both of those events as being part of satellite launches. Monday’s surprise launch came with no such explanation. But it fits into the larger context of North Korea’s rapidly escalating nuclear and missile ambitions—and, more alarmingly, it shows outright disdain for President Donald Trump’s recent bluster.
It was just a few weeks ago, after all, that Trump declared that further threats from North Korea would prompt “fire, fury, and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.” While the rhetoric seemed intended to cow North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, repeated threats against US territory Guam and Monday’s missile scare suggest that Trump’s words, along with recent military exercises conducted by the US and South Korea, had the exact opposite impact.
“It’s nothing out of the ordinary to do what North Korea did in terms of the frequency of the launches, but there may be an added motive in terms of responding to what they perceive as hostile actions, whether it’s US–South Korea military exercises this month or US–Japan exercises that are going on in the Hokkaido area as well,” says Frank Aum, a former Department of Defense senior adviser on North Korea. “Or it just may be a message to President Trump and the international community that they are undeterred.”
While the Japan flyover rightly garnered the most attention, other aspects of the launch seemed designed to provoke as well. For one, the missile did not have a so-called lofted trajectory, as many recent tests have. Instead of being aimed to reach a high altitude and cover less horizontal ground, the missile traveled on a trajectory more similar to what would actually be used in an attack. In the past North Korea has said it used lofted trajectories to keeps its tests from flying over neighboring countries.
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The test also likely used a Hwasong-12 missile, a type of midrange rocket that North Korea would probably use in a launch targeted at or near Guam, a possibility the country has touted in recent weeks. South Korean officials also said after Monday’s test that the North launched the missile from Sunan, a populated area where Pyongyang International Airport is located. Since most other missile tests have come from more remote parts of North Korea, Monday’s test may indicate launch-system mobility, and faith that at least some missiles can be safely fired—as in, won’t explode on the launch pad—near the nation’s capital.
“This was the most provocative act possible that would get the least amount of direct responses back,” says James McKeon, a policy analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. “I would be shocked if Japan or South Korea or the United States actually did anything substantive beyond talking about increasing missile defenses or other tough talk. It’s a provocative behavior, and they’re doing it on purpose to stretch the boundary as far as possible.”
In the spirit of tough talk, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, promised a swift and appropriate response. President Trump released a carefully worded statement that took several steps back from his previous fire and fury: “The world has received North Korea’s latest message loud and clear: this regime has signaled its contempt for its neighbors, for all members of the United Nations, and for minimum standards of acceptable international behavior,” the statement reads, adding, “All options are on the table.”
As always, the region now hinges on how South Korea, Japan, and the US react. Reports on Tuesday indicated that South Korea was working on new plans to defend itself and invade Pyongyang in the event of a substantive North Korean strike on the country. Despite the Trump administration’s recently ramped up sanctions, isolation tactics, and rhetoric against the country, it still seemed caught off guard by the test. Just last week, secretary of state Rex Tillerson remarked that Pyongyang had “demonstrated some level of restraint that we have not seen in the past,” and Trump added that same day that he thought Kim Jong-un was beginning to respect the US.
‘The real question is what is President Trump’s response going to be?’ — Frank Aum, Former DOD Senior Adviser
This week’s missile test rebuffs that interpretation. “I don’t think [Tillerson] understands North Korea’s thinking. North Korea is very adept at incrementally ratcheting up the pressure to see what the response is,” Aum says. “They are going to continue with their tests and we can expect provocations for the rest of the year—it may ultimately get to a sixth North Korean nuclear test. So the real question is what President Trump’s response is going to be. If he doesn’t do anything, then that diminishes the credibility of our deterrence and makes him look weak. If he does do something along the lines of ‘fire and fury’ then we’re heading toward nuclear escalation, so either way it’s a bad situation.”
A growing consensus views open talks with North Korean officials, without preconditions, as one of the few viable courses of action left. “Every time they do a launch, especially such a provocative launch like this one, it reinforces the fact that we need to be talking to the North Koreans,” McKeon says.
“There is no military solution for a North Korea with nuclear weapons,” said US senator Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts), who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, in a statement. “So we must immediately and directly negotiate with Pyongyang for agreement to refrain from nuclear and ballistic missile testing in exchange for confidence building measures from the US to reassure the North Korean government that our military forces in the region are there only to deter and defend, not to attack North Korea.”
With so few options available, it seems clear that Trump’s scorched-earth bluster has not only failed to bring a tenuous situation any closer to a resolution but has actively made it worse. The question now is how much, if any, stable ground between the US and North Korea remains.