White House officials and Asian leaders are worried that North Korea may provoke a crisis in an effort to throw President Donald Trump’s trip to the region off script.
Their concern is that North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, might conduct a ballistic missile test — or even a far more shocking atmospheric nuclear test — during Trump’s visit to Japan or South Korea, and that Trump would respond by escalating rather than defusing tensions.
Trump has met Kim’s recent provocations with growing anger, including his August threat to unleash “fire and fury” against the North.
“The biggest challenge may be crisis management,” said Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. “We have to be ready for how we deal with the unexpected.”
South Korean intelligence has detected activity at a North Korean missile facility that would be consistent with a coming test launch, South Korea’s Yonhap News agency reported Friday.
That suggests Kim could again cast his shadow over a meeting between Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who will play golf together late Saturday Eastern time.
The last time Trump and Abe met, in mid-February, Kim fired a missile over Japan as the men dined at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. Advisers huddled around the leaders’ outdoor table with maps and flashlights in a chaotic scene that analysts say Kim must have relished.
One Asian diplomat said it was impossible to predict what Kim might do, but said that a missile test would offer an opportunity for the U.S. and its allies to “show solidarity” against Kim’s regime.
Trump administration aides have planned ahead for such a contingency, according to one source familiar with the discussions.
The sense of uncertainty underscores Kim’s ability to spark an international crisis at the time of his choosing.
It also illustrates the way the young dictator’s nuclear program frames Trump’s larger Asia policy, crowding out other priorities to the exasperation of U.S. and Asian officials alike.
Japanese officials, for instance, worry the U.S. focus on North Korea is a distraction from China’s rising military might and territorial aggression.
North Korea hasn’t tested a missile since mid-September, a notable pause after a summer of repeated launches — but one also consistent with what experts call a seasonal lull seen in past years.
Some Asian officials worry that, whether or not Kim tests a weapon, more threats from Trump could set back already faint prospects for diplomacy with North Korea — the only way to avoid a disastrous war in their neighborhood.
South Korea’s government helped to persuade Trump not to pay a customary visit to the demilitarized zone on its border with North Korea, for fear of further inflaming tensions with Pyongyang.
South Korean Prime Minister Moon Jae-in wants to persuade Trump to open a direct diplomatic channel to Kim, a goal shared by China.
“The South Koreans have been encouraging high-level backchannel discussions with North Korea,” said Cronin, of the Center for a New American Security. “But the Trump administration wants to be sure the north is receptive.”
When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said last month that the U.S. was “probing” the prospect of diplomacy with the north, Trump said his chief diplomat was “wasting his time trying to negotiate” with the North Korean leader, whom he derided as “Little Rocket Man.”
That rhetoric angers not only Kim but also Moon, who fears a miscalculation that could put his country in the crosshairs of a North Korean attack.
Briefing reporters at the White House on Thursday, Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, laughed off the idea that Trump exhibit more rhetorical restraint during his 13-day Asian tour.
“I don’t think the president really modulates his language — have you noticed him do that?” McMaster asked reporters.
Trump will arrive in Japan days after a pair of American B-1B bombers based in Guam staged an exercise over South Korea that the North’s official Korean Central News Agency described as a “mock nuclear strike drill.”
“The reality clearly shows that the gangster-like U.S. imperialists are the very one who is aggravating the situation of the Korean Peninsula and seeking to ignite a nuclear war,” KCNA fumed.
Experts on North Korea’s nuclear program are almost resigned to a missile launch in the next two weeks that would mark further progress toward Kim’s goal of placing a nuclear warhead atop a missile capable of hitting the mainland U.S
“I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest to see North Korea do a missile test during the trip,” said Adam Mount, a senior fellow with the Federation of American Scientists.
Far more alarming would be North Korea’s first atmospheric test of a nuclear weapon, presumably over the Pacific Ocean. Such a test would produce terrifying images of a mushroom cloud and could spread dangerous radiation over a wide area.
North Korea threatened to detonate an atomic bomb over the ocean after Trump’s speech at the United Nations in September in which he mocked Kim as “Rocket Man,” and on Oct. 25 the country’s foreign minister reiterated the threat.
“They often tell us what they’re going to test ahead of time, and this is what they’re signaling next,” Mount said. “I don’t expect it to come during the Trump visit, but no one can say for sure.”
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