Asia Politics

Trump played down North Korea's string of missile tests. That could embolden Kim

Key Points
  • U.S. President Donald Trump plays down North Korea's third missile launch in about a week, saying that "short-range missiles" are "very standard."
  • Trump says the tests will not affect his willingness to continue negotiations with Pyongyang.
  • Jean Lee, director of The Korea Program at the Wilson Center, says it seems like North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un is in "no hurry" to negotiate a nuclear deal and, ultimately, his intention is to "cause confusion and panic."
U.S. President Donald Trump with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un inside the demilitarized zone.
Dong-A Ilbo | Getty Images

U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday played down North Korea's third missile launch in just a week. Experts said he's likely trying to keep negotiations on track, but they warned it may, in fact, be emboldening Pyongyang. 

South Korea's military said unidentified short-range projectiles were fired at 2:59 a.m. and 3:23 a.m. local time on Friday from North Korea's South Hamgyong Province into the East Sea. In response, Trump said the launches didn't breach any agreements he'd made with the country's dictator, Kim Jong Un. In fact, he called Friday's "short-range missiles" trials "very standard," adding that he did not anticipate the recent spate of tests to derail negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang.

"I think it's very much under control, very much under control," he told reporters after what was at least the third North Korean missile launch in just over a week.

"We never made an agreement on that. I have no problem," the president added. "We'll see what happens."

Trump's lack of criticism toward North Korea's most recent missile tests from Washington has raised some concerns from policy experts.

For one, the president had previously trumpeted the lack of missile launches as evidence that negotiations were going well. In 2018, for example, Trump tweeted that Kim had agreed to "no missile testing" for a period. Speaking in Ireland during a June trip, the American leader noted the absence of "ballistic missile testing." And, less than two weeks ago, Trump said "there's no nuclear testing, there's no missile testing, there's no nothing."

Geopolitical analysts suggested that Trump's new public tone on missile tests may give Kim the impression he's working from a position of strength.

"Trump's muted response to that test likely emboldened Kim to keep testing, although keeping it in the short range trajectory to avoid seriously risking talks," said Kelsey Broderick, an Asia-focused analyst at political risk consultancy Eurasia Group.

Jean Lee, director of the Korea Program at Washington-based policy research firm the Wilson Center echoed that sentiment in a recent note. She said the North Korean leader calculated "that short-range ballistic middle tests do not directly confront Trump."

Kim's intentions

Kim, Lee added, is using the missile tests to "push the envelope with Trump and other world leaders" as an equal. The week's trials, she said, are "Kim's answer to Trump's claim that he's in "no hurry" to negotiate a nuclear deal."

From a strategic standpoint, the North Korean autocrat is trying to "create a sense of urgency on the Korean Peninsula to improve his hand in anticipated nuclear negotiations," Lee said.

A man watches a television news screen showing file footage of a North Korean missile launch, at a railway station in Seoul on July 25, 2019.
Jung Yeon-je | AFP | Getty Images

"(The launches) serve as a reminder to the world that North Korea continues to build its arsenal, and is poised to return to provocation at a moment's notice," she said, warning that North Korea's ultimate "intention is to cause confusion and panic."

In fact, Lee explained, even though the launches from the last few days were not nuclear bombs or long-range missiles, "they do threaten South Korea and Japan, putting pressure on those U.S. allies to challenge and pressure Washington as nuclear negotiations get underway."

South Korea's military leadership, for its part, reportedly said it is "monitoring the situation in case of additional launches and maintaining a readiness posture."

Talks will take place

Trump and Kim met on June 30 in the demilitarized military zone between the North and South Korea and agreed to revive stalled talks about Pyongyang's denuclearization and economic sanctions. There's been little public indication much has happened on the bilateral front since then.

"Despite an extraordinary rapport and historic meetings between Trump and Kim, the talks have not meaningfully restarted since June nor have they made substantial progress overall, said Todd Mariano, a U.S.-focused director at Eurasia Group.

Yet even with the recent missile launches, talks between Washington and Pyongyang are likely to continue, experts said.

"North Korea's escalation is meant to bolster its leverage — especially amid this month's U.S.-South Korean military exercises — but is also calibrated to avoid precipitating a major breakdown and return to bellicose behavior," Mariano told CNBC.

Overall, both sides are "maintaining interest in dialogue, however hampered and unfocused it has been," he added.

The back and forth, he said, "will likely continue through 2020, not looking wholly dissimilar from the previous administration's policy, but may encounter difficulty depending on the state of the U.S. presidential election."

Broderick said she expects talks between Trump and Kim to take place in the coming months. If they result in "something substantial," she said, then the U.S. president can benefit from that victory before the next presidential election.

In the meantime, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has expressed a desire to restart talks this month, but was said to be disappointed that no North Korea representative attended the ASEAN foreign ministers' meeting in Bangkok this week, according to the Associated Press.

— Reuters contributed to this report.