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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, front, presides over the launch of the Hwasong-14 missile in a photo released by local state media Tuesday.   © Kyodo
North Korea Crisis

US struggling to deal a blow to North Korean missile program

Pyongyang races full speed ahead regardless of Trump's attempts at pressure

OKI NAGAI and TSUYOSHI NAGASAWA, Nikkei staff writers | North Korea

BEIJING/WASHINGTON -- Despite attempts by U.S. President Donald Trump to curb North Korea's nuclear and missile development, the rogue state only seems to be doubling down on its provocations, claiming Tuesday to have successfully launched an intercontinental ballistic missile.

The missile test was conducted in honor of a North Korean holiday on July 3, which celebrates the founding of its strategic forces, a North Korean official told The Nikkei on Tuesday. The official said Pyongyang made the decision as a sovereign nation, revealing that even Beijing had not been informed of the launch in advance.

At first glance, the timing in itself seems to be a message from Pyongyang, given that the U.S. celebrates its independence on July 4 and that the Group of 20 summit starts on Friday in Germany. But a closer look at the situation shows that the North is simply going full speed on becoming a nuclear power, regardless of pressure from Washington.

The Trump administration is believed to see an ICBM launch as a "red line" in relations with North Korea. Just Monday, a Chinese official reassured foreign dignitaries in Beijing that the North was holding off on further nuclear tests and ICBM development, and that the rogue nation was aware that there are lines it should not cross.

But Pyongyang has crushed such optimism. "We are trying to get more information," a spokesman for China's foreign ministry said at a Tuesday briefing, which began about 20 minutes behind schedule. "The Chinese side opposes launches by [North Korea] in violation of relevant resolutions of the UN Security Council," he said, repeating past calls for restraint and a return to dialogue.

In an April summit, the U.S. and China agreed to adopt a 100-day plan to resolve trade imbalances, as well as to cooperate on curbing North Korea's nuclear and missile development. American officials have threatened to raise economic pressure on Beijing unless it makes progress on Pyongyang by mid-July, when the 100 days run out.

But China is reluctant to take punishing measures like restricting the North's crude oil supply, concerned that doing so could spark chaos there and send a horde of North Korean refugees to the countries' border. It remained cautious even at its diplomatic and security meeting with the U.S. in late June. A frustrated Washington responded by increasing pressure on Beijing, including through sanctions on a Chinese bank.

Meanwhile, North Korea took the opportunity to build up its threat level. It also seems to think the U.S. is unlikely to take military action and risk retaliation against South Korea or Japan, where many American citizens live.

The U.S. believes that Pyongyang actually fired an intermediate-range missile, instead of an ICBM. Under that scenario, an immediate armed response seems unlikely, since the North would not have crossed the red line. Backed by the overwhelming military might of the U.S., Trump has been building pressure on Pyongyang since taking office nearly six months ago, but he has not produced concrete results.

For its part, Japan is toughening up on North Korea. South Korean President Moon Jae-in, while meeting former British Prime Minister David Cameron on Tuesday, said he did not know how his country and the U.S. would react to Pyongyang crossing the red line. But Moon also said at a national security council meeting earlier in the day that he will continue seeking a dialogue with the North.

While the U.S., Japan and South Korea are struggling to get on the same page, North Korea continues to hone its nuclear and missile capabilities in the hopes of opening direct negotiations with the U.S.

"Does this guy have anything better to do with his life?" Trump tweeted about North Korean leader Kim Jong Un following the latest test.

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