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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waves during a military parade on Saturday, April 15, 2017, in Pyongyang, North Korea to celebrate the 105th birth anniversary of Kim Il Sung, the country’s late founder and grandfather of current ruler Kim Jong Un. (Wong Maye-E/AP)
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waves during a military parade on Saturday, April 15, 2017, in Pyongyang, North Korea to celebrate the 105th birth anniversary of Kim Il Sung, the country’s late founder and grandfather of current ruler Kim Jong Un. (Wong Maye-E/AP)

international affairs

North Korea’s missile failure provides brief relief Add to ...

The launch of a North Korean missile early Sunday morning was a highly provocative move in the midst of tensions so heightened that senior Chinese leaders have repeatedly warned that war could break out at any moment.

But the missile’s abrupt explosion shortly after launch instead brought a temporary reprieve to the rising hostilities in the region, with the U.S. administration backing away from some of its militaristic rhetoric and flattering Beijing for doing its part in pushing North Korea away from its pursuit of atomic weapons it can rain down on the continental United States.

China is “working with us on the North Korean problem,” U.S. President Donald Trump said on Twitter Sunday. “We will see what happens!”

Analysis: North Korea, master of chaos, stokes new Asian crisis

Vice-President Mike Pence landed in Seoul on Sunday, the first stop on a four-country tour of Asia. Meanwhile, others in the Trump administration signalled that, despite dispatching an aircraft carrier group to waters near the Korean Peninsula, the United States was backing down from threats that it would consider any alternative, including armed force, to keep North Korea from completing work on a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile.

“It’s time for us to undertake all actions we can, short of a military option, to try to resolve this peacefully,” H.R. McMaster, Mr. Trump’s national-security adviser, said in an interview on ABC’s This Week that aired Sunday.

The United States, he said, would continue “to rely on Chinese leadership” to push for change in North Korea, pointing out that Pyongyang’s trade and energy needs are heavily reliant on materials and currency that come from China.

“North Korea is very vulnerable to pressure from the Chinese,” Mr. McMaster said.

Apart from frequent conversations with U.S. leadership, it’s not clear what China has done. Beijing has halted imports of North Korean coal, a valuable export for the isolated regime, but overall trade between the two countries actually grew 37.4 per cent in the first quarter.

Still, the comments suggest a new effort to seek peaceful resolution. China and South Korea last week agreed to pursue harsher sanctions against North Korea if it conducts new nuclear or long-range missile tests. The White House has decided on a policy of “maximum pressure and engagement” toward North Korea, U.S. officials told the Associated Press.

After weeks of rising tensions, the failed missile launch is “the best possible outcome,” said Robert Kelly, an expert on northeast Asia security at Pusan National University.

“The Trump people aren’t put in a position of, ‘How do we respond to a missile that just flew over Japan?’ ”

Meanwhile, North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un can tell his people he has launched a missile, without needing to acknowledge its failure.

“This lets everybody off the hook. The North Koreans can posture – they did their big test – while the rest of us don’t feel compelled to do anything,” Prof. Kelly said.

North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency had, as of Monday morning, made no reference to the missile test. Instead, it carried comments from a Saturday military parade in which Choe Ryong-hae, believed to be the second-in-charge in North Korea, said “we’re prepared to respond to an all-out war with an all-out war.”

At the parade, North Korea displayed what appeared to be a series of powerful missiles during celebrations of the 105th birthday of Kim Il-sung, the grandfather of Kim Jong-un and founder of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as North Korea calls itself.

Among them was its Pukkuksong missile designed to be launched from a submarine to attack targets more than 1,000 kilometres away. It was the first time the missile had been shown in public.

The Sunday launch was conducted from the eastern port city of Sinpo where North Korea last year – in April, July, August and December – tested missiles that could be launched from a submarine. One launched in August flew about 500 kilometres and entered Japan’s air defence identification zone before falling into the ocean.

The new test Sunday “doesn’t change the strategic dynamic, but it is another incremental step for Pyongyang in technical development,” said Michael Kovrig, senior adviser on northeast Asia for the International Crisis Group, an organization whose research is dedicated to the prevention of deadly conflict.

“North Korea’s government is signalling that it has a nuclear deterrent and is determined to continue improving its capability and resilience.”

Though Pyongyang’s nuclear tests have brought it condemnation from around the world, it is North Korea’s missile program that is more worrisome, Prof. Kelly said. North Korea is already a nuclear nation, with a bomb more powerful than those dropped by the United States in the Second World War.

“The real issue now is missile-ization,” he said: Can North Korea develop the guidance systems and other technology to deliver an atomic bomb over long distances?

“It’s the missiles that really matter, not the nuclear tests,” he said.

Mr. Trump earlier this year vowed that a North Korean nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile “won’t happen,” and he has signalled a willingness to addressing problems with military might. Under him as Commander-in-Chief, U.S. forces recently attacked a Syrian airfield with a flurry of missiles and detonated the “mother of all bombs,” an enormously powerful non-nuclear weapon, on a cave complex in Afghanistan.

Critics have argued that such a strategy could backfire with North Korea and serve only to persuade Mr. Kim that his need for his own powerful weapons is growing more acute.

U.S. analysts, however, said Mr. Trump’s military signals send the right message.

“It was important to demonstrate that the United States does have a muscular option, is willing to accept some risk and is determined to do what it takes to defend the American homeland and allies in the region,” said Michael Green, former senior director for Asia and special assistant to the president on the National Security Council staff under president George W. Bush who is now senior vice-president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

That’s a dramatic change from the mere imposition of economic sanctions, “which have been imposing on paper but leaky in practice,” Prof. Green said.

Still, he said, “a U.S. strike is very likely not imminent,” although the United States may in future seek to shoot down a North Korean missile.

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