North Korea significantly increased the security threat in Asia with the launch of its first intercontinental ballistic missile. The test raises the stakes for President Donald Trump to use this week's European visit to forge consensus on a new approach to contain the North's nuclear program. There are no easy options, and any new diplomatic push will require a fully staffed State Department.
The test marked a major leap in the North's longstanding effort to build a long-range nuclear arsenal. U.S. and South Korean officials said the missile flew for about 40 minutes, reaching an altitude of about 1,500 miles and covering a distance of 580 miles, making the flight longer and higher than any test previously reported. A missile at that range could reach Alaska. The North's erratic leader, Kim Jong Un, delighted in poking Washington on America's Fourth of July holiday, vowing to never abandon his nuclear program and promising to send more "gift packages" of missile and atomic tests in the future.
The South's defense minister on Wednesday indicated that the ICBM had the potential to reach Hawaii. But beyond its actual reach, the test inflamed military tensions on an already heated peninsula and reaffirmed Pyongyang's desire to see through development of a long-range arsenal. It also closed the door at least for now to any negotiated settlement. The top U.S. general in South Korea said Wednesday that "self-restraint" was all that keeps the North and South from going to war. The test was condemned almost universally as a violation of U.N. resolutions and a needless provocation. The United States and South Korea responded by conducting a joint military exercise, firing ballistic missiles off the South's east coast.
Pentagon officials described the North's missile as a new two-stage design they had not seen before, and they raised concerns that further tests could result in a deadly accident in the air or on the seas. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that "global action is required" to counter the threat, and Trump is expected to meet with his counterparts in Europe this week on the next steps in managing the crisis.
The West has few options. A direct military response could quickly spin out of control and should be off the table. Sanctions could be tightened, but the North Korean government has made clear it will sacrifice whatever it has to in order to ensure the nuclear program is a priority. China has leverage over the North, but it has little interest in doing more than maintaining a stalemate on the peninsula and preserving China's influence in the region. Trump didn't help the cause by tweeting criticisms of China on Wednesday; that only buys the North more valuable time, increases tensions and undercuts the approach by the new government in the South to engage the North politically.
Japan said Wednesday that it has agreed with the United States to take "specific" steps to further deter the North — a hint that the allies could further deploy anti-missile defense systems in the region. But any military preparations must be coupled with a more robust political approach. The Trump administration has complicated the task by refusing to fill high-level vacancies in the diplomatic corps. The State Department needs order and personnel, especially under a president who has sidelined his secretary of state as the nation's top diplomatic voice.
North Korea presents a serious challenge, and no recent president has found a real solution. Now the situation has worsened with the North's improved missile technology. An unstable leader in North Korea and an unpredictable U.S. president prone to rash decisions heighten concerns. The Trump administration's only viable alternative is to build an international consensus and work harder to establish a climate with China and others that helps stall North Korea's race to equip a missile with a nuclear weapon. There is no going it alone on this one — and no easy solution.