NEW YORK, Feb 13: Donald Trump faced his first major foreign policy challenge as president on Sunday following the launch of a ballistic missile by North Korea – a launch likely timed to coincide with the visit of Japan’s prime minister to the United States.
Mr Trump and Shinzo Abe, his Japanese counterpart, hastily convened a press conference late on Saturday night to condemn the test.
Mr Abe called the launch “absolutely intolerable” and said North Korea must comply with UN Security Council resolutions.
Mr Trump added: “I just want everybody to understand, and fully know, that the United States of America is behind Japan, our great ally, 100 per cent.”
He made no further comments, and critics pointed out that it was strange he made no mention of North Korea by name, or move to reassure South Korea, a key US ally.
China, which Mr Trump has accused of neglecting to rein in North Korea, is yet to respond.
Mr Trump’s relationship with Beijing got off to a rocky start when he took a phone call from the leader of Taiwan and questioned the One China policy – Beijing’s belief that Taiwan is part of China. But on Thursday Mr Trump spoke to Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader, in a bid to repair ties. And the new administration is likely to step up pressure on China to rebuke North Korea, an official told Reuters.
“This was no surprise,” the official said. “The North Korean leader likes to draw attention at times like this.”
North Korea confirmed on Monday that it “successfully” launched a “surface-to-surface medium-to-long-range ballistic missile”.
State-run KCNA news said that leader Kim Jong-un supervised the test of the Pukguksong-2, a new type of strategic weapon capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.
The United States, Japan and South Korea requested urgent UN Security Council consultations on the test, an official in the US mission to the United Nations said following the confirmation. A meeting was expected on Monday afternoon, the official said in a statement.
KCNA said the missile was fired at a high angle in consideration of the safety of neighbouring countries. A South Korean military source said on Sunday the missile reached an altitude of 550 km (340 miles).
It flew a distance of about 500 km, landing off its east coast, towards Japan.
Mr Trump has vowed to take a tougher line on North Korea than Barack Obama, criticising his predecessor for being weak. He pledged a more assertive approach to the rogue nation but has given no clear sign of how his policy would differ from Mr Obama’s so-called strategic patience.
In January, after Kim Jong-un said the North was close to testing an ICBM, Mr Trump tweeted: “It won’t happen!”
He has floated the idea of allowing South Korea and Japan to have nuclear weapons in response – an he now appears to have dismissed.
Stephen Miller, senior adviser to Mr Trump, refused on Sunday to say whether the missile launch crossed a “red line” for the president. But he said the US was determined to support its allies and maintain a robust military.
“We are going to reinforce and strengthen our vital alliances in the Pacific region as part of our strategy to deter and prevent the increasing hostility that we’ve seen in recent years from the North Korean regime,” he said.
“These are complex and difficult challenges. And that’s why President Trump is displaying the strength of America to the whole world and it’s why we’re going to begin a process of rebuilding our depleted defence capabilities on a scale we have not seen in generations.”
The missile was launched from an area called Panghyon in North Korea’s western region just before 11pm GMT on Saturday, and flew about 300 miles, the South’s Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said.
“Our assessment is that it is part of a show of force in response to the new US administration’s hardline position against the North,” the South Korean military said.
“These tests happen on a fairly regular basis,” said Jim Walsh, an international security analyst at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“But it’s hard not to see it as a challenge to both Mr Trump and Mr Abe – a two for one, if you want.”
He said Mr Trump was wise not to rush to react.
“When you don’t have a lot of great options in your hands, it’s best to say less rather than more.”