TOKYO — Listening to President Trump, it is almost as though North Korea didn’t just conduct two separate missile tests this month, firing off at least three ballistic missiles in direct contravention of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
“My people think it could have been a violation,” Trump said in a joint news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Monday. “I view it differently.”
On Saturday, the president’s national security adviser, John Bolton, told reporters there was “no doubt” that North Korea had violated the Security Council resolutions by firing off short-range ballistic missiles.
Trump, however, counters that perhaps North Korean leader Kim Jong Un just wanted attention.
“It doesn’t matter. All I know is that there have been no nuclear tests, there have been no ballistic missiles going out, no long-range missiles going out,” he said.
Last week, he also told “Fox News Sunday” that the North Koreans “haven’t had any tests over the last two years — zero.”
Just for the record, here’s a photograph of the exhaust trail of a missile North Korea launched May 4, caught by a Planet Labs satellite.
Five days later, on May 9, North Korea launched from the country’s west coast two more missiles, which flew 290 and 180 miles before landing in the sea. At the time, the Pentagon described them as ballistic missiles, a description supported by an array of experts.
It is not a description the South Korean government supports.
Seoul has played down Pyongyang’s tests, describing the May 4 launch as “projectiles” rather than a missile, and referring to the May 9 launch as “short-range missiles” but arguing that further analysis is needed to determine whether they were indeed ballistic.
On Monday, the presidential Blue House stuck to that position, with an official — who spoke on the condition of anonymity while discussing a sensitive issue — saying there is “no way to know” why Bolton made those remarks.
But is Seoul being sincere?
At a luncheon last week with top military officials of the two allies, President Moon Jae-in appeared to slip up when he referred to North Korea’s May 9 launch as “dando missiles,” an ambiguous expression mixing up “tando” and “dangeori,” which respectively mean ballistic and short-range in Korean, according to a pool report.
The presidential Blue House scrambled to clarify, with spokeswoman Ko Min-Jung insisting that Moon meant to refer to the missile as “short-range” instead of “ballistic.”
The distinction is important.
Multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions specifically say that North Korea must stop all tests using ballistic missile technology, deemed particularly threatening to other countries.
Calling the missiles “ballistic” would raise the diplomatic stakes at a time when the peace process is already falling apart.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appears to recognize this. He also has played down the missile tests, saying that they were short-range and not a threat to the United States.
“There is not a scintilla of doubt that North Korea fired at least three ballistic missiles,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a scholar at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey in California.
Vipin Narang, an associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the South Korean government may be playing “fast and loose” with semantics.
“The trajectory of the KN-23 is low, so sometimes referred to as a quasi-ballistic missile, which may give them just enough semantic wiggle room to say, ‘It’s not an SRBM,’ ” he said, referring to a short-range ballistic missile. “But it is.”
The U.S. president is clearly trying to boast about what he considers an important foreign policy success, and minimize the problems that have emerged since the collapse of his summit with Kim Jong Un in Hanoi in February.
Moon, his South Korean counterpart, has invested even more of his personal prestige in engaging with North Korea. His government has run into serious criticism from North Korea recently for continuing military exercises with the United States, and he’s struggling to make headway as the de facto mediator between Pyongyang and Washington.
Lewis thinks so.
“I am always in favor of keeping a sense of perspective and searching for a diplomatic solution,” he wrote in an email. “But lying about what the North Koreans are doing is a recipe for disaster. These two tests are a warning that there is worse to come unless the United States is willing to accept much less than it demanded in Hanoi.”
Narang is slightly more forgiving. He points out the tests don’t violate North Korea’s promise to cease nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missiles and argues that Washington and Seoul may hope they are one-off responses to U.S.-South Korea military exercises.
But the risk, he adds, is that “by doing so, it green-lights Kim to keep pushing the line and gradually testing longer-range missiles as a pressure tactic,” he said. “What if he tests one missile too far or one missile too many and, literally, overshoots what Trump is willing to tolerate?”
That’s a risk also highlighted by Nam Sung-wook, a former South Korean intelligence official who is now a professor of North Korean studies at Korea University.
“The North Koreans need the big powers to pay attention to them,” he said. “The low-key response to his latest test could stimulate Kim into a bigger provocation.”
Not terribly well.
In Monday’s news conference, Abe said United States and Japan shares the same policy toward North Korea, but he contradicted Trump by saying North Korea had fired off ballistic missiles on May 9, in contravention of U.N. Security Council resolutions, describing it as a “regrettable act.”
Policymakers and experts are concerned that this softly-softly approach might encourage North Korea to test a medium-range ballistic missile that could really threaten their country. In that case, they would be hoping for a much stronger response from Trump.
But Narushige Michishita, a professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, says that any strategy has an upside and a downside.
The “denial” approach has the advantage of conveying Washington and Seoul’s strong commitment to restart talks, he said. It has the disadvantage of undermining the allies’ bargaining position and encouraging North Korea to try to find out what happens if it launches medium- or long-range missiles.
“Overall, it is not such a bad idea,” he said. “It doesn’t help, but it isn’t too harmful, either.”
A more sensible approach, Narang says, would have been to call the May 9 launch what it was — a short-range solid-fuel ballistic missile.
The next step would then be to explain that although it did not violate any commitments Kim made to Trump or Moon, it did violate U.N. Security Council resolutions, and then to warn that any further ballistic missile tests would violate the spirit of the Singapore Declaration agreed to by Trump and Kim.
“It would thereby keep the door open for diplomacy without incentivizing Kim to push the line any further,” he said.
Min Joo Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.This story from May 23 has been updated to reflect President Trump’s comments on Monday.