The most remarkable thing about North Korea’s missile test on Tuesday wasn’t that it happened; as the country’s nuclear-weapons program has entered the final stretch of development, Kim Jong Un has steadily demonstrated missiles of increasing range and nuclear bombs of increasing power. What was most striking was how the Trump administration initially responded to one of North Korea’s most provocative actions yet toward the United States.
The North dramatically concluded a 74-day pause in its nuclear and missile tests, which had raised hopes that tensions on the Korean peninsula were easing. It launched into the waters off Japan a suspected intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that, according to an assessment by the arms-control expert David Wright, appears to “have more than enough range to reach Washington, DC, and in fact any part of the continental United States,” challenging the American president’s professed commitment to preventing North Korea from acquiring the capability to fire nuclear weapons at the U.S. (Wright points out that it’s unclear whether the missile displayed on Tuesday can carry a heavy nuclear warhead to the American mainland.) And Donald Trump and his advisers reacted with considerable restraint.
“I can only tell you that we will take care of it,” said Trump, who has previously threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea and its “Little Rocket Man” leader with unprecedented “fire and fury” from the U.S. military. During a press conference in which he focused on the prospects for tax reform, the president deferred to his defense secretary on the missile test, noting only that the development hadn’t changed his policy toward the North. Initial tweets from the president in the hours after the missile test focused on the U.S. economy, specifically that the stock market was at “RECORD HIGHS!”
Defense Secretary James Mattis observed matter-of-factly that the missile had flown higher “than any previous shot they’ve taken,” indicating once again that North Korea now possesses missiles “that can threaten everywhere in the world, basically.” The “bottom line,” Mattis said, “is it’s a continued effort to build a ballistic-missile threat that endangers world peace, regional peace, and certainly the United States.”
And yet despite that ever-growing threat, “diplomatic options remain viable and open, for now,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stressed in a statement. The United States “remains committed to finding a peaceful path” to remove North Korea’s nuclear weapons and end its “belligerent actions”—specifically through its campaign to pressure North Korea into negotiations by escalating international sanctions on the North and persuading China and Russia to withdraw their support for the Kim regime. Speaking to reporters, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert described the test as “a disappointment” but refrained from lending it more significance than that. “North Korea is not showing any serious signs of wanting to sit down and have conversations with the … global community,” she said, as if speaking about a misbehaving child. The tenor was reminiscent of the studiously subdued reactions previous administrations have had to North Korean provocations. “Twenty-four hours ago they weren’t prepared to talk. Today they certainly aren’t prepared to talk.”
At a moment of intense speculation about whether war could break out between the U.S. and North Korea, the Trump administration has signaled that it is sufficiently encouraged by its progress in isolating North Korea economically and diplomatically to not let a missile test, however menacing or record-breaking, sway it off-course. For now.