Missile Launch Tests President Trump's North Korea Strategy

Updated: Jul 04, 2017 6:51 PM ET

(WASHINGTON) — The latest North Korean missile launch comes as President Donald Trump appears to be reassessing his strategy for the region, which has emphasized both tough talk and collaboration with China.

Trump responded quickly after North Korea on Tuesday tested a missile that flew higher and longer than previous ones, criticizing leader Kim Jong Un and urging China to "put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all!" But he offered no specifics on a path ahead.

White House officials did not respond to questions about what Trump meant. Since he entered the White House, Trump has talked about confronting Pyongyang and pushing China to increase pressure on the North, but neither strategy has produced fast results. The White House has been threatening to move forward on its own, though administration officials have not settled on next steps.

Patrick Cronin, an Asia expert with the Center for a New American Security, said Trump was probably coming to the "coming to the point of no return" with North Korea, adding that the upshot could be diplomatic overtures or military action.

"We either go to the diplomatic table with Kim Jong Un or we do take some course of action," Cronin said. "In all probability we do both."

Trump spoke with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Monday, discussing North Korea and its nuclear program with both leaders. He will meet them both this week at the Group of 20 meeting in Germany, as well as have his first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Trump and Xi emerged from their first meeting — in April at the U.S. president's Florida estate — seemingly as fast friends. But China has long resisted intensifying economic pressure on neighboring North Korea, in part out of fear of the instability that could mount on its doorstep, and Trump has not found a way to break through Beijing's old habits.

Trump has expressed frustration recently with North Korea's nuclear ambitions, which have become one of his most vexing international problems. During a joint statement in the Rose Garden last week with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Trump said the "the era of strategic patience with the North Korean regime has failed."

The president added that he wants "peace, stability and prosperity" for the region, but warned the United States will "always" defend itself and its allies.

China and Russia released a joint statement Wednesday proposing that North Korea declare a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests while the United States and South Korea refrain from large-scale military exercises. The White House did not immediately respond.

The latest launch appeared to be North Korea's most successful missile test yet. The country claimed it had successfully test-launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said late Tuesday the test was with an intercontinental ballistic missile.

His statement provided the first confirmation of the U.S. conclusion that the missile was an ICBM.

The U.S. military's initial assessment was that North Korea fired an intermediate-range missile.

Jean Lee, a global fellow at the Wilson Center, said in a statement that the missile launch is "Pyongyang's way of sending a message of defiance to the U.S. and South Korean leaders."

"It's also strategic," said Lee, a former Associated Press bureau chief in Pyongyang. "If the U.S. and South Korea are going to step up sanctions, North Korea will certainly move faster in getting its illicit nuclear and ballistic missile programs as far along as they can before any negotiations on a freeze or dismantlement."

Democratic Sen. Edward Markey, who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement Tuesday that Trump must offer a "coherent strategy of direct diplomacy with Pyongyang and increased economic sanctions pressure from China."

Markey, of Massachusetts, said Trump "must realize that there is no military solution to this threat. Unilateral action will only escalate tension, increase the paranoia of Kim Jong Un, and bring us closer to what everyone agrees would be a catastrophic war."

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