BERLIN — When North Korea tested a new kind of intercontinental ballistic missile on Wednesday, Pyongyang boasted that the regime could now strike “anywhere in the mainland United States.”
A previous missile tested by North Korea may already have been able to reach those cities under certain circumstances, but Wednesday’s launch has now almost certainly put all major European targets within Pyongyang's reach.
Yet, Europe still does not appear to view North Korea’s missile program as its own problem, even as the scenario officials once feared appears to have become reality.
European leaders may have doubled down on their condemnations after the latest missile test, but these largely echoed previous, more cautious remarks, compared to President Trump vowing, somewhat ominously, to “take care of it.” The comparative calmness with which Europe is responding may of course be due to the lack of direct threats. So far, North Korea has focused on its archenemy, the United States, even though European politicians have acknowledged that an escalation of the conflict could easily draw Europe into the dispute.
But their more cautious responses also reflect the role European leaders believe they have in this conflict. Occupied with other foreign policy and security dilemmas, Europe has so far mainly attempted to prevent a further escalation of the tensions between the United States and North Korea. “Nuclear armed North Korea is clearly a potential threat to Europe, but it’s far from a top priority. Europe is dealing with a resurgent Russia, irregular migration and a host of other issues before North Korea comes up,” said Marcel Dirsus, a German military expert and political scientist at the University of Kiel.
“Even if Europe wanted to influence events on the ground, it couldn’t. Europe has no real political, economic or military leverage over Pyongyang. The real players are China, Russia and the United States. When it comes to North Korea, Europe has neither the will nor the capability to effect meaningful change. The North Korean crisis illustrates the limits of European power,” Dirsus said.
In their responses on Tuesday and Wednesday, leading European politicians showed they saw North Korea as a global, rather than as a European problem.
In a tweet, French President Emmanuel Macron said that the test “reinforces our determination to increase pressure on Pyongyang and our solidarity with our partners.”
German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel similarly criticized North Korea over its missile program, saying in a statement that it “again breached international law. North Korea’s ruthless behavior poses a huge threat to international security.”
“This proves again the seriousness of the threat to world peace posed by North Korea,” he added. Germany also summoned the North Korean ambassador on Wednesday.
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson called on the North Korean regime to “change course,” on Wednesday, saying: “This is not the path to security and prosperity for the North Korean people.”
Britain has so far offered the strongest acknowledgment that Europe is increasingly under threat of North Korea’s refusal to stop its nuclear and missile tests, as well. In September, then-defense secretary Michael Fallon said: “The U.S. is fully entitled to defend its own territory, to defend its bases and to look after its people, but this involves us, London is closer to North Korea and its missiles than Los Angeles,” he said.
“The range is getting longer and longer and we have to get this program halted because the dangers now of miscalculation, of some accident triggering a response are extremely great,” Fallon added at the time.
Yet, as North Korea continued to make technological advances this past year, Europe’s role in pressuring it into halting its program remained mostly unchanged — and largely rhetorical. As well as condemning the missile tests, European top officials have also lashed out at Trump for threatening Pyongyang. Gabriel of Germany criticized Trump in September, saying that “martial rhetoric won’t take us one step further,” after Trump threatened North Korea with “total destruction.”
Europe's reluctance to fully support the U.S. stance toward handling the North Korea dilemma is likely being welcomed by Russia, which similarly condemned the test on Wednesday and indirectly appeared to warn the United States of overreacting.
“Another missile launch is a provocative action that provokes further growth of tension and puts us even further away from the start of settling this crisis situation,” the presidential press secretary, Dmitry Peskov told journalists.
“We condemn this launch and hope that all parties concerned will be able to remain calm, which is so essential in order to avoid the worst-case scenario in the situation on the Korean Peninsula,” he said.
The measured response by the Kremlin, which is ironically known in Europe for its often aggressive military operations, and its striking similarity to Western Europe’s approach likely has a lot to do with the fact that none of their capitals are currently in the sights of North Korea’s missiles. Yet, at the same time, the diplomatic solution they all favor has made little head way so far.
Andrew Roth in Moscow and James McAuley in Paris contributed to this report.