On Saturday morning, the front pages of American news outlets were plastered with photos of North Korean "Frankenmissiles" being paraded through the streets of Pyongyang. Less than 24 hours later, the tin-pot dictatorship tested a ballistic missile that reportedly fizzled in a matter of seconds. Now, U.S. authorities are showing signs that a conflict can be averted.
According to U.S. and South Korean authorities, the U.S. Pacific Command "detected and tracked what we assess was a North Korean missile launch at 11:21 a.m. Hawaii time April 15." The type of missile that was used is still being assessed. Last month, North Korea fired four Scud-Extended Range missiles that could be used to attack U.S. and Japanese military bases but the ballistics only flew about 64km before losing control. It would require a far more sophisticated intercontinental ballistic missile for North Korea to strike the mainland in the United States.
Vice President Pence was on his way to make a scheduled appearance in the South Korean capital of Seoul when the missile test occurred. It's notable that the U.S. military did not consider it a risk for the Vice President to be in the region at the time. A U.S. foreign policy adviser travelling with Pence told Reuters: "We had good intelligence before the launch and good intelligence after the launch." The administration is remaining coy about whether or not sabotage was involved and Defence Secretary Jim Mattis issued a terse statement that offered no clues. "The president and his military team are aware of North Korea's most recent unsuccessful missile launch," Mattis wrote. "The president has no further comment."
Oh, but the president did have further comment regarding North Korea and China. He tweeted early Sunday morning, "Why would I call China a currency manipulator when they are working with us on the North Korean problem? We will see what happens!" The tweet was a reference to his campaign pledge to label China a currency manipulator. It would appear that Trump is walking back his tough talk on China as they take the lead in containing the situation in North Korea.
In recent months Chinese authorities have suspended imports of North Korean coal and supported UN sanctions against the country in a signal that their patience has run thin. Last week, China's diplomats quietly urged the U.S. to relax its aggressive talk that could lead to unnecessary war and they have reportedly enlisted Russia's assistance in defusing the tensions.
Following a week of news that included American warships moving into position in the Korean peninsula, the U.S. posture appears to be experiencing a bit of whiplash. Authorities have been anticipating another nuclear test from North Korea this month and Trump has officially put the country "on notice," whatever that means. But they appear to be breathing a sigh of relief now that North Korea has once again shown that its technology isn't nearly as advanced as it claims. The anonymous foreign policy adviser travelling with the vice president told reporters that there will be no response from Washington:
It's a failed test. It follows another failed test. So really no need to reinforce their failure. We don't need to expend any resources against that.
Officials have also indicated that the U.S. doesn't actually intend to use military force and the current strategy is one of "maximum pressure and engagement."
There are a lot of players at the table who like to talk big right now, so it's probably best to keep a cool head about any impending war with North Korea.