Leaders around the world, prominently including U.S. President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, vowed to bring increased pressure to bear against North Korea after its reckless launch of a ballistic missile over Japanese territory on Monday afternoon.
The question, as always, is exactly what kind of pressure can be applied, especially if China does not agree to punish its feral client regime more harshly.
The North Korean launch was not unprecedented, as something similar happened in September 1998. In that incident, the missile was one of North Korea’s new two-stage Taepodong-1 weapons, the first in Pyongyang’s arsenal with a reliable capability to strike anywhere in Japan.
Monday’s launch involved a much more advanced three-stage missile that flew much further than the ‘98 model (and commensurately landed farther off the Japanese coast). Among its other worrisome attributes, the BBC cites experts who believe it could be the first North Korean missile powerful enough to carry a nuclear warhead.
However, context matters, and in the context of current events, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared the latest North Korean provocation was an “outrageous act” and an “unprecedented, serious, and grave threat” to regional security.
He spoke to President Trump for about 40 minutes by phone on Tuesday morning, and both leaders agreed to call for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council. Abe told reporters the meeting would concern applying “increased pressure on North Korea in cooperation with the international community.”
The United Nations announced that the Security Council would meet late on Tuesday to discuss the situation.
America’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said on Tuesday that North Korea’s missile launch was “absolutely unacceptable and irresponsible.” She added that it “violated every single U.N. Security Council resolution that we’ve had and so I think something serious has to happen.”
“No country should have missiles flying over them like those 130 million people in Japan,” Haley declared.
French President Emmanuel Macron agreed that the North Korean launch was “irresponsible” and signaled he was ready to support new initiatives against the outlaw nation. Germany’s Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel called it a “brutal” violation of U.N. resolutions and said Germany welcomed calls for a Security Council meeting, although he stopped short of calling for new sanctions, instead speaking in favor of “rigorously implementing” existing measures to bring North Korea back to the nuclear negotiating table.
British Prime Minister Theresa May said she was “outraged” by North Korea’s “reckless provocation” and “strongly condemns these illegal tests.” She vowed that Britain would “continue to work with our international partners” to pressure the Kim regime and announced she would proceed with a planned trip to Japan on Wednesday.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull angrily condemned “this latest reckless, dangerous, and provocative act by the North Korean regime which continues to threaten the peace and stability of the region.”
His Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, called the missile launch “dangerous, threatening, and provocative.” Opposition leaders used almost exactly the same language to describe the North Korean threat.
Turnbull both pledged cooperation with international efforts and said Australia would continue to implement “strong unilateral sanctions against those supporting the North Korean regime’s illegal and dangerous weapons program.”
Turnbull also thanked China for its participation in the last round of tough U.N. sanctions in a way that suggested he would very much like China to do more. “They have the ability to bring North Korea to its senses without military action,” he pointed out.
The question, as always, is how much of that ability China plans to exercise. The Chinese Foreign Ministry signaled no change in posture whatsoever, repeating its usual calls for everyone to remain calm, which is advice Japanese civilians might have difficulty taking when a North Korean ICBM goes blasting overhead at six in the morning.
China also maintained its posture of blaming the United States and South Korea equally for tensions on the Korean peninsula. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying castigated the U.S. and South Korea for holding “one round after another of joint military exercises” and exerting “military pressure” on North Korea.
“After so many rounds and vicious cycles, do they feel they are nearer to peaceful settlement of the issue? The facts have proven that pressure and sanctions cannot fundamentally solve the issue,” said Hua, signaling disappointment for those who hoped the deranged actions of the Kim regime would finally prompt China to use its ultimate leverage over North Korea’s economy.
North Korea constantly complains about such joint military exercises and has stated their permanent suspension is a non-negotiable precondition for further diplomacy, so China is clearly taking the Kim regime’s side by amplifying that demand, even in the face of unbelievable provocations like Monday’s missile launch.
Russia, meanwhile, offered fairly mild disapproval of Pyongyang’s actions.
“Regarding North Korea and the missile tests it is conducting, we stick to the resolutions of the U.N. Security Council and we insist on the fact that our North Korean neighbours should fully respect those resolutions,” said Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, currently on a visit to the United Arab Emirates.
Actions might speak louder than words, however. The UK Express quoted Russian media on Tuesday reporting that the Ministry of Emergencies has ordered some 1,500 Russian citizens living on the North Korean border to relocate to safer areas. The order was later characterized as a “training exercise” by Russian officials.
Other Russian ministers expressed general concerns about escalation on the Korean Peninsula or took China’s line that U.S. and South Korean military drills are as much of a problem as illegal North Korean ICBM launches into foreign airspace.