North Korea taunts Trump over missile test as U.S. and South Korea conduct military exercises

Washington Post

Tensions over North Korea's July 4 missile test mounted Wednesday, with U.S. and South Korean forces conducting military exercises and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appearing to taunt the president of the United States.

The latest launch was a display of the North's longest-reaching weapon yet - an intercontinental ballistic missile with a range that experts say covers Alaska. It now sharply boosts pressure on President Donald Trump and his allies to carve out a strategy on North Korea amid deep international divisions over how to respond to an increasingly defiant regime in Pyongyang.

In a stark warning, top U.S. and South Korean commanders said the North risked tipping the peninsula toward war. Kim Jong Un, meanwhile, joked about what he called his Independence Day gift to the United States, according to accounts in North Korea's state media.

Before his inauguration, Trump said North Korea's plan to develop an ICBM capable of hitting the United States "won't happen" and has since repeatedly talked tough on the issue.

Yet Trump's main strategy to rein in North Korea counted on help from China, which is the North's main financial lifeline. On Wednesday, Trump again called out Beijing for failing to tighten the economic noose.

"Trade between China and North Korea grew almost 40% in the first quarter. So much for China working with us - but we had to give it a try!" Trump tweeted.

Trump did not note the source of the statistic, but Chinese data released in April showed China's trade with the North grew 37.4 percent during the first three months of the year compared with the same period in 2016. China said the trade grew even as it complied with U.N. sanctions and stopped buying North Korean coal.

Now with Trump's China outreach apparently on the rocks, there were few clear signs on how to seek international agreement on dealing with the North's missile program.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has called for "global action" to counter North Korea, and the U.N. Security Council planned an emergency session later Wednesday to address the issue.

But Security Council members have already staked out their positions.

In a joint statement issued late Tuesday, Beijing and Moscow called for a "double suspension" under which Pyongyang would freeze its nuclear weapons program and the United States and South Korea would stop joint military exercises.

Instead, the maneuvers went ahead in what the U.S. Pacific Command called an "ironclad" show of resolve, as the U.S. Army and the South Korea military fired missiles off the eastern coast of South Korea.

Daniel Pinkston, a lecturer in international relations at Troy University in Seoul, said he saw no chance that the United States and South Korea would agree to halt joint exercises, especially after the North's latest missile test. "It's a nonstarter; it's just not going to happen," he said.

Deng Yuwen, a Beijing-based expert on North Korea, sees a growing divide between the positions of the United States, South Korea and Japan, on one hand, and China and Russia on the other.

"Two opposing blocs have been formed," he said.

Meanwhile, North Korea's state media carried gleeful descriptions Wednesday of Kim's reaction to the missile launch.

Kim "feasted his eyes" on the ICBM ahead of the launch. Then, "with a broad smile on his face," urged scientists to send more "big and small 'gift packages'" to the Americans.

Kim was quoted as saying that the "protracted showdown with the U.S. imperialists has reached its final phase."

On the other side of the fortified line separating the two Koreas since the 1950s, a U.S. commander warned that North Korea's actions threatened peace.

"Self-restraint, which is a choice, is all that separates armistice and war," Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, commander of U.S. forces in South Korea, and Gen. Lee Sun-jin, chairman of the South's Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a statement.

On Wednesday, South Korean authorities described the North's test as a two-stage missile with a range of about 4,300 to 5,000 miles - enough to reach Alaska and other parts of North America.

Defense Minister Han Min-koo said there is high probability that Pyongyang will stage another nuclear test. He also noted gains in its efforts to miniaturize a warhead - both steps toward developing nuclear-tipped weapons capable of hitting the mainland United States.

Trump's efforts with China took shape during talks in April with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago, where Washington and Beijing appeared to put aside differences in the name of cooperation on North Korea and trade.

In recent weeks, there were increasing signs that Trump is frustrated with China's progress. On June 21, he tweeted: "It has not worked out."

On Tuesday, as news of the North Korean test broke, but before the missile was confirmed to be an ICBM, the president vented again. "Hard to believe that South Korea and Japan will put up with this much longer," he wrote.

"Perhaps China will put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all!" He did not say what type of move he he had in mind.

The focus on Chinese efforts has exasperated Beijing, which insists it has done its part to pressure Pyongyang and resents being singled out.

"The international community has no solutions," said Song Xiaojun, who used to run a government linked-military magazine. "The U.S. wants to transfer the burdens to China."

Both foreign and Chinese analysts expressed frustration that the United States did not seem focused on getting North Korea to the negotiating table.

"The first obvious step is talking to them. That's just kind of Diplomacy 101," said John Delury, an assistant professor at Seoul's Yonsei University.

"Obama didn't do enough about that, either," he added. "There has been a severe drought of talking at a high level with North Koreans."

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Beijing would push for dialogue at the United Nations. "We hope the relevant discussions of the North Korea nuclear issue focus on dialogue, negotiation and peaceful settlement as soon as possible," he said.

The Washington Post's Dan Lamothe in Washington, and Shirley Feng, Luna Lin and Yang Liu in Beijing contributed to this report.

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