Baik Sung-won and Kim dong-hyun contributed to this report.
WASHINGTON — Muted U.S. criticism of North Korea’s missile tests is encouraging Pyongyang to escalate its weapons program, undermining Washington’s own diplomatic efforts aimed at denuclearization, experts have told VOA in recent days.
“Trump’s casual dismissal of seven rounds of [North Korean leader] Kim Jong Un’s ballistic missile tests [since late July] is an inexcusable act that, in effect, is viewed by Kim as license to continue to pursue his weapons of mass destruction programs,” Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told VOA by email Thursday.
North Korea has conducted nine missile launches since May, following the breakdown of the Hanoi Summit in February, where Kim failed to secure sanctions relief from U.S. President Donald Trump. Talks between Pyongyang and Washington have been at standstill since then.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters at a Pentagon news conference Wednesday that the U.S. is concerned about North Korea’s short-range missile tests. But Esper said, “On the other hand, we're not going to overreact.” He continued, “We want to take a measured response and make sure that we don’t close the door to diplomacy.”
The Trump administration has largely played down North Korea’s missile tests, in an apparent move to continue diplomacy aimed at denuclearizing the country. In response to the latest round of tests North Korea conducted on August 23, Trump said Kim did not violate a promise made to him because “we never restricted short-range missiles.”
Dennis Wilder, the National Security Council’s senior director for East Asia affairs during the George W. Bush administration, said by email Thursday, “Because it seems there is no way to get the North to the negotiating table, the administration is prepared to allow the short-range missile testing, as long as it does not destabilize the situation on the peninsula or in Northeast Asia.”
“The cost of doing this," he said, "is that Kim continues to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons and develop other parts of his military arsenal.”
North Korea said Thursday it would be a “mistake” for the West to think it would give up weapons it says are required to maintain peace.
The statement, circulated by North Korea’s U.N. mission, was issued in response to a joint British, French and German statement issued in a closed-door U.N. Security Council session Tuesday condemning North Korea for recent missile tests.
Evans Revere, acting assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific during the George W. Bush administration, said by phone Tuesday Washington’s “constant dismissal of the significance of things like ballistic missile launches … has the effect of encouraging the North Koreans into thinking that they are on the right track.”
North Korea has apparently developed advanced missile technology that can evade preemptive strikes targeted to destroy missiles before they are launched and missile defense systems designed to intercept incoming missiles in flight.
According to Douglas Paal, vice president at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Trump administration’s dismissal of North Korea’s missile tests has also made South Korea as well as Japan skeptical of Washington’s security policy in East Asia.
“The muted criticism of North Korea, following President Trump’s lead, is reinforcing doubts in South Korea and Japan that the U.S. does not share their concerns about the growing missile threats to them and cares more about missiles that can reach U.S. territory,” said Paal by email Thursday. “The U.S. sense of detachment from Korean security interests is contributing to a drift in the alliance.”
Against U.S. recommendations, Seoul pulled out of an intelligence-sharing pact that shares sensitive military information with Tokyo last week. The U.S. has been expressing disappointment and concerns about Seoul’s move to end the agreement.
In response, South Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Cho Sei-young reportedly asked U.S. Ambassador Harry Harris Wednesday to refrain from publicly expressing disapproval of its decision to terminate the agreement.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe disagreed with Trump on North Korea’s missile tests when the two met in France for an annual Group of Seven summit last Sunday.
Abe said, “It was extremely regrettable for us to experience another around of the launch of the short-range ballistic missiles by North Korea in recent days.”