After 74 days of silence, North Korea test-fired its third and most successful ICBM to date on Tuesday night, triggering another frenzied response from the US media and the usual bluster from Washington hawks pining for another pre-emptive war.
“We’re not going to let this crazy man in North Korea have the capability to hit the homeland,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham told CNN, reflecting a widespread view by conservative forces in Congress.
“I hope the regime understands that if President Trump has to pick between destroying the North Korean regime and the American homeland, he’s going to destroy the regime,” Graham arrogantly declared, conveniently ignoring predictions that hundreds of thousands of Americans, Koreans and even Japanese could die in an all-out war.
Meanwhile, Scott Seaman, Asia director for the influential Eurasia Group in Washington, told the Wall Street Journal that the launch didn’t change his assessment of a 20% chance of military conflict. In recent days, other experts have put the chances at 50% and even higher.
But the North’s explanation that the test marked completion of its “state nuclear force,” combined with the subdued reaction from President Trump, seemed to suggest that something more than another so-called Northern “provocation” might be afoot. That includes the tantalizing possibility that Kim Jong Un may finally be open to direct talks with the United States to resolve the crisis.
That scenario was floated to the Washington Post by Ralph Cossa, president of the CSIS Pacific Forum and a longtime player in US Korea policy. “Once Pyongyang is convinced that we are convinced that it can reach the U.S. mainland with an ICBM, it will be willing to discuss a freeze” on its programs in return for a lifting of the heavy sanctions imposed by the UN, he said.
Like most newspapers here, the Post’s initial take on the ICBM test zeroed in on the potential 8,000-mile trajectory of the Hwasong-15 rocket, which –as its headline blared - “appears to put [the] U.S. capital in range” of North Korean new weapons.
According to the Joongang Ilbo: the missile flew nearly 960 kilometers after peaking at an altitude of 4,500 kilometers before landing inside Japan’s exclusive economic zone. That’s about 100 kilometers off the coast of Aomori prefecture. “Had it been fired at a normal angle, the missile could have flown more than 10,000 kilometers, which easily passes the 5,500 kilometer threshold to qualify as an ICBM,” Joongang Ilbo reported.
For anyone closely watching the situation, a test of that magnitude was no surprise. In recent public declarations and unofficial talks with American specialists, North Korea has emphasized that its weapons program is aimed at deterring the United States and suggested that, once it completes development of a missile capable of hitting the United States, it would be prepared for peace talks.
“Before we can engage in diplomacy with the Trump administration, we want to send a clear message that the [North] has a reliable defensive and offensive capability to counter any aggression from the United States," a North Korean official told CNN in October. More recently, its foreign ministry reiterated its stand to the US experts and former officials it meets with regularly.
“In our talks, the North Koreans have maintained that they are not striving to be a nuclear state with a big arsenal, but rather to have enough weapons to defend themselves,” two of those experts, Suzanne DiMaggio and Joel Wit, wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times on November 7. The North’s assertions that they “have entered the last stage in the development of their nuclear force” implies “that they have an endpoint in mind,” they added.
Support for a negotiated settlement is only marginal in Washington, where talk of a military solution has dominated media and political debates about North Korea.
“There’s an increasing chorus that you hear in Washington that we have to go to war, that we have to take military action, to stop the North Korean threat,” Joe Cirincione, the president of the Ploughshares Fund, a prominent peace organization, told Rachel Maddow, a popular liberal talk-show host, on MSNBC Tuesday night. “It’s starting to feel like 2002, when a consensus was growing that the only thing we can do is go to war” even though negotiations hadn’t been tried, he said.
Cirincione, who called the test a “very serious step forward” for the North, pointed to a recent report in the Post that the US government has said privately that if Pyongyang halts its testing for 60 days, “that would be the signal” Washington needs to begin direct dialogue with the Kim regime. Yet, despite the North’s 74-day stoppage, “we didn’t move towards any negotiations,” he noted.
With all the war talk, the media appeared primed on Tuesday to hear threatening statements from President Trump. But, in the wake of his comments in Seoul this month that he wanted to “make a deal” with Kim, the president was cautious.
“We will take care of it,” Trump told reporters gathered at the White House. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, who had just briefed the president, was more forthcoming. He noted that this ICBM “went higher, frankly, than any previous shot they've taken.” Mattis then he added an interesting observation, calling the launch “a research and development effort on their part to continue building ballistic missiles that can threaten everywhere in the world, basically."
That reference to R&D, which the administration has not used before, is much softer than standard US language on the North Korean nuclear program and is certainly far less threatening than the almost apocalyptic
descriptions used by Trump, Mattis and others prior to their state visit to Seoul earlier this month.
Yet it remained be seen whether the Trump administration sees an opportunity in Pyongyang’s claims that it has “finally realized the great historic cause of completing” a nuclear weapons program that that can deter the United States.
In a dispatch from Seoul, the New York Times’ Choe Sang-hun suggested the North may be exaggerating its missile capabilities. He cited Kim Dong-yub, a defense analyst at Seoul’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies, who said the North would not consider a freeze “until it had test-launched an ICBM on a normal trajectory over the Pacific and proved an atmospheric re-entry technology.” The televised announcements on the test were “likely for domestic propaganda,” Kim said.
Back in Washington, analysts in favor of dialogue said their understanding was that North Korea would agree to talk only when the United States sent a clear signal that it had abandoned what Pyongyang calls its “hostile policy.”
In remarks earlier this month, Suzanne DiMaggio, who has met with Northern officials several times this year, said she had been told that such as signal might include a halt in “inflammatory rhetoric, especially from Trump,” as well as a moratorium on US-South Korean military exercises and the lifting of some sanctions. In addition Pyongyang will continue to develop its weapons until they believe they’ve reached a “balance of power” with the United States, she told a conference at the conservative Cato Institute.
Analysts here were also struck by President Moon Jae-in’s response to the latest test. While fully backing the Trump administration’s sanctions and pressure campaign, he also expressed worry that North Korea’s weapons program could trigger a pre-emptive strike by US forces to prevent completion of a nuclear-tipped ICBM.
Such a situation could “spiral out of control,” he said at the emergency meeting he called after the test. "We must stop a situation where North Korea miscalculates and threatens us with nuclear weapons or where the United States considers a pre-emptive strike."
Kingston Reif, an analyst with the Arms Control Association, called the statement “extraordinary.” “The President of one of our closest treaty allies fears that Trump could initiate a catastrophic war,” he wrote.
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