WASHINGTON — President Trump promised Tuesday that the United States “will handle” North Korea after the regime of Kim Jong Un carried out its latest intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test in defiance of escalating international pressure. Trump also vowed to continue his efforts to tighten the global diplomatic and economic vise on Pyongyang.
“We will take care of that situation,” Trump told reporters as he met with Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan. “It is a situation that we will handle.”
The president did not specify what that might mean.
Defense Secretary James Mattis, sitting near the president, said that the ICBM fired Tuesday “went higher, frankly, than any previous shot they’ve taken” and told reporters that the launch showed that North Korea was determined to build missiles “that could threaten everywhere in the world, basically.”
The president and Mattis spoke after the Pentagon confirmed that North Korea had fired an ICBM at about 1:17 p.m. ET, its first test since mid-September. The rocket traveled roughly 1,000 kilometers from launch point to the Sea of Japan, where it splashed down. But because it flew on a lofted trajectory — sacrificing distance for altitude — some independent experts said the missile could conceivably have reached Washington, D.C..
Still, the Pentagon said, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) “determined the missile launch from North Korea did not pose a threat to North America, our territories or our allies.”
It was unclear what prompted North Korea’s launch, which came a week after Trump announced that his administration was putting the regime in Pyongyang back on its list of state sponsors of terrorism. At the time, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had noted the 60-day span since Kim had carried out a provocative act, adding: “We’re hopeful that he continues this quiet period. That’s our objective, is that he continue to be quiet.”
The Trump administration has notched several recent successes in its campaign to further isolate North Korea over its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, notably a pair of 15-0 U.N. Security Council votes to tighten sanctions. Countries like Singapore and Sudan have promised to cut some economic ties. Even China, North Korea’s de facto patron and its largest export market, has reportedly curbed trade with the secretive Stalinist regime.
Asked whether the launch was making him reconsider his strategy, Trump responded: “Nothing changed. … We have a very serious approach.”
Still, top Trump aides have been saying that time is running out to find a diplomatic solution, suggesting that the White House believes that North Korea — unlike the Soviet Union or China — cannot be deterred and must instead be disarmed.
In July, North Korea fired two ICBMs potentially capable of reaching U.S. soil. In early August, news outlets reported that American intelligence confirmed a finding by Japan’s defense ministry that North Korea had likely developed warheads small enough to fit on its missiles.
But there are still many questions about Pyongyang’s capabilities — how reliable are its guidance systems? Has it devised reentry systems to ensure that its warheads would not burn up in the atmosphere?
After the July tests, Trump had made similarly confident comments. “We’ll handle North Korea,” Trump told reporters at a Cabinet meeting. “We’re going to be able to handle them. It will be handled.”
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