Whatever one thinks of North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un, you have to give him this: He’s got guts. A day before the meeting of leaders of the world’s two largest economies, Donald Trump and Xi Jinping, he ordered the launch of a ballistic missile, which fell into Japanese waters. And he knew it would raise hell on the international stage.
Indeed, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe got on the phone with Trump and the two leaders agreed that the missile launch was “a dangerous provocation and a serious threat.”
Calls were made for an emergency UN Security Council meeting, while several world leaders condemned the action. The move is likely to be one of the main – if not the – talking point between Trump and Xi.
What’s more, Kim knew it would infuriate Trump and Xi for stealing attention away from their summit at US President’s resort Mar-a-Lago in Florida. And that partly explains why he did it. Launching missiles has for years been the modus operandi for Kim to put himself in the spotlight and state his role on the global political playing field, according to analysts.
Launching missiles, one might say, is Kim’s way to shake hands with world leaders and say: “Nice to meet you, look how big guns I have.”
Guo Yu, principal China analyst at global risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft, said the move followed common practice by the North Korean leader.
“The timing of the latest missile launch on the eve of the Xi-Trump summit fits into a pattern of Pyongyang’s recent activities, aimed at stealing the international limelight,” he said.
Pyongyang pulled the same trick when Trump hosted Abe in February.
When South Korea’s (now ousted) president Park Geun-hye took office in 2013, her northern counterpart greeted her with underground nuclear tests. Missiles have also been launched by Pyongyang in connection with US and South Korean joint military exercises.
Trump has repeatedly urged Beijing to do more to exert its influence over its unpredictable ally in Pyongyang to restrain its nuclear and missile programs. China denies it has any overriding influence on North Korea.
Now Trump has instead warned that he would take unilateral action to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear threat – without the blessing of Beijing.
“China has great influence over North Korea. And China will either decide to help us with North Korea, or they won’t,” Trump told the Financial Times. “If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will.”
But analysts interviewed by Asia Times find it unlikely that Trump would turn those threats into action. It’s just not realistic.
First, he would not get the consent of the South Korean government. Secondly, it would create political chaos in the region.
“The possibility is very low,” says Willy Lam Wo-lap, adjunct professor in the Center for Chinese Studies at Chinese University of Hong Kong. “There would be a massive loss of lives in Seoul and other South Korean cities within artillery range from the North. The US needs collaboration from South Korea and Japan, and I can’t see them agreeing to this. The costs are too high.”
Verisk Maplecroft’s Yu also finds a unilateral US attack attack unlikely.
“President Trump used ‘going alone’ comments on North Korea to put pressure on China to do more to tackle the rising threat from Pyongyang. Aside from military actions, an option which could lead to catastrophic numbers of casualties, it is difficult for the US to act unilaterally on North Korea,” he said.
Trump’s comment has sparked alarm among many analysts in Asia about the implications for South Korea, Japan and China of a military conflict with Pyongyang.
Bong Young-shik, researcher at the Institute for North Korean Studies at Seoul’s Yonsei University, told the FT that Trump’s comment probably is a “bargaining gambit” and a warning to Beijing and Pyongyang that “he can be as irrational as North Korea can be.”
Until Trump shows that he really is as irrational as Kim Jong-un, and willing to accept catastrophic numbers of casualties and political turmoil in the region, he just has to let the North Korean dictator have his time now and then in the global limelight.