TOKYO -- North Korea's incessant missile tests may signal disregard for the stronger U.S. military presence, as President Donald Trump's strategy of applying pressure while seeking dialogue -- simply inherited from the prior administration -- looks to have grown hollow.
Pyongyang launched a ballistic missile Sunday evening, the eighth missile test this year. The move came just one week after the rogue state's previous missile launch. International condemnation of such tests has failed to deter North Korea for over two decades.
"The ongoing testing is disappointing, it's disturbing," U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a Fox News interview Sunday.
The term "disappointing" suggests that some expectations were unmet. Tillerson effectively admitted that the Trump administration lacked a firm grip on the issue, spurring concern over what is to follow.
By conducting the latest launch in the early evening, North Korea likely sought to showcase that it can carry out a missile firing any time of the day. Many previous launches were done in the early morning or before noon.
The projectile resembles a medium- to long-range, surface-to-surface ballistic missile tested Feb. 12, according to a South Korean military source. This type can target not only Japan but also the U.S. territory of Guam.
Pyongyang likely will continue testing new missiles and rocket fuels while refraining from more alarming actions -- such as a sixth nuclear weapons detonation or a test of an intercontinental ballistic missile -- that might trigger a U.S. military response.
This is an opportune time for North Korea to measure U.S. reaction, for several reasons.
The president faces political turmoil after abruptly firing FBI Director James Comey, to whom Trump himself apparently asked to end an investigation of Russian ties to Michael Flynn, the former White House national security adviser. These problems may distract the administration, leaving fewer resources to handle the North Korean issue.
American media report that the USS Ronald Reagan nuclear-powered aircraft carrier has been sent to waters near the Korean Peninsula to join the USS Carl Vinson. Yet the unusual situation of having two U.S. carriers deployed in the Sea of Japan has failed to ignite a sense of urgency for North Korea.
The North Korean missile launch also could erode Trump's morale during his first overseas tour as U.S. president. Trump is visiting Saudi Arabia and Israel, and will attend a NATO meeting and a Group of Seven summit to open Friday in Italy.
South Korea's military has indicated that Sunday's missile launch was part of North Korea's basic schedule, suggesting that Pyongyang did not even consider U.S. pressure.
The United Nations Security Council has warned that any fresh military provocations will be met with severe repercussions, including sanctions.
Yet North Korea's foreign ministry said it will continue to conduct such tests until the U.S. makes the right choice. North Korea seeks a dialogue with the Trump administration, along with obtaining U.S. recognition as a nuclear state, which is unlikely to happen. The vast gap that has divided the two sides for more than 20 years shows no sign of closing.