May 23, 2017 4:00 am JST

Pyongyang's missile advances have world looking beyond US

China, Russia seen as key in halting North Korea's weapons development

The regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, looks to deploy a new midrange ballistic missile. © Kyodo

TOKYO -- North Korea's heightened missile threat highlights the failure of U.S.-led international pressure to deliver a punishing blow to the program, suggesting that a breakthrough may hinge on Chinese and Russian cooperation.

Kim Jong Un's regime has declared its intent to mass-produce and deploy the country's latest intermediate-range missiles, a stage in development that "elevates the threat degree," said a person within Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's inner circle.

When Pyongyang fired a medium-range missile May 14, Tokyo detected the projectile when it was secured on the launch pad. But during the North's latest test Sunday, Japanese experts apparently were unable to spot the missile before the launch.

Moreover, the hermit state tested missiles only a week apart. "It is clear that North Korea is accelerating the buildup of its technology," a senior official at Japan's Defense Ministry said.

"Kim Jong Un does not feel any pressure," a high-level Foreign Ministry official said during a strategy meeting held Monday by Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party. "We will stop at nothing to make him feel the pressure, including freezing oil supplies."

Part of the problem stems from the softer optics the U.S. is projecting on North Korea. After Presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping met in April, Washington told Beijing that it would not seek regime change in Pyongyang if Kim renounces nuclear and missile development.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson echoed that sentiment Thursday to an envoy sent by newly elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in. America will neither pursue regime change nor invade the reclusive state, and the North's internal system will remain intact, Tillerson reportedly promised.

However, Pyongyang seemingly saw the U.S. as granting more wiggle room for provocation. "Compared to the tensions in April, the mood underwent a complete change," a senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official said.

"It is imperative that we reduce North Korea's intake of foreign currencies and block transfers of materials and technology related to nuclear and missile development," Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters Monday. Suga indicated that success hinges on Russian and Chinese cooperation. Many officials in Tokyo think China has plenty of room to tighten financial sanctions and limit petroleum supplies.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying reiterated Beijing's preference for dialogue and negotiations Monday, urging "relevant parties to keep calm and restrained."

"China opposes [North Korea's] missile launch in violation of Security Council resolutions," she told reporters.

The U.N. Security Council will hold an emergency meeting Tuesday at which Japan will lobby the U.S. and South Korea to tighten sanctions. During the two-day Group of Seven summit starting Friday in Italy, Abe will try to convince the group to issue a joint statement characterizing the latest North Korean threat as a new level of provocation.

Abe and Trump also are set to meet at the G-7 summit, where the goal is to form a consensus that will pressure China and Russia to help implement muscular sanctions against North Korea.

(Nikkei)

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