North Korea’s return to missile testing after a long hiatus raises the stakes for President Trump ahead of planned nuclear negotiations, undermining his claim that his personal relationship with dictator Kim Jong Un has reduced the threat from North Korea and made Asian allies safer.
The short-range weapons are a threat to U.S. allies South Korea and Japan, or potentially to U.S. forces in the region. North Korea says its testing is a warning to South Korea, which is resuming joint military exercises with the United States in August and is also acquiring American F-35 stealth fighter jets.
The challenge from Kim to Trump is also clear and appears aimed at squeezing concessions from the U.S. leader when negotiators meet after months of delay. That session is expected soon, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tuesday.
In an interview Wednesday evening on Fox Business Network, national security adviser John Bolton said the tests do not break a pledge Kim made to Trump that he would not test intercontinental ballistic missiles. He added a note of caution, “You have to ask if, when, the real diplomacy is going to begin, when the working-level discussions on denuclearization will begin.”
Trump downplayed a similar launch last week, saying many nations test short-range weapons. “My relationship with Kim Jong Un is a very good one, as I’m sure you’ve seen,” Trump said Tuesday, hours before the latest launch. “We’ll see what happens. I can’t tell you what’s going to happen. I know one thing: that if [Hillary Clinton] was president … you would be in a major war right now with North Korea.” Trump added, “I have a good relationship with [Kim Jong Un]. I like him; he likes me,” Trump said Tuesday. “We’ll see what happens.”
Kim’s calculation may be that the tests unnerve and weaken both the United States and South Korea, but that Trump would not retaliate by canceling talks or taking other actions so long as Kim does not directly confront or insult him.