Pyongyang's missile launch challenges Donald Trump's campaign to isolate North Korea

North Korea says it has successfully tested a missile that now has the capability to strike anywhere in the world.
A handout photo made available by the official North Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) allegedly shows the North Korean inter-continental ballistic rocket Hwasong-14 being prepared before a test launch at an undisclosed location in North Korea, on Ju
A handout photo made available by the official North Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) allegedly shows the North Korean inter-continental ballistic rocket Hwasong-14 being prepared before a test launch at an undisclosed location in North Korea, on July 4, 2017.PHOTO: EPA

BEIJING (WASHINGTON POST) - North Korea's test launch on Tuesday (July 4) of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) marks a direct challenge to US President Donald Trump, whose tough talk has yet to yield any change in Pyongyang's behaviour as the regime continues its efforts to build a nuclear weapon capable of striking the mainland United States.

The latest missile flew higher and remained in the air longer than previous attempts - enough to reach all of Alaska, experts said, in a major milestone for North Korea's weapons programme.

The test comes just before Mr Trump will see key Asian leaders and Russian President Vladimir Putin later this week. North Korea was already expected to be a main subject for meetings on the sidelines of the Group of 20 economic summit, but the test adds urgency to a widening US campaign aimed at further isolating North Korea.

Mr Trump responded to the missile test by applying rhetorical pressure on China, North Korea's ally and economic lifeline, and by mocking North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un on Twitter.

"North Korea has just launched another missile. Does this guy have anything better to do with his life?" Mr Trump asked in a message very shortly after the launch.

"Hard to believe that South Korea and Japan will put up with this much longer," he continued. "Perhaps China will put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all!"

The launch follows a string of recent actions by Pyongyang, including a salvo of missiles last month and three tests in May. Mr Kim has now launched more missiles in one year than his father and predecessor in the family dynasty did in 17 years in power.

North Korea has also conducted five nuclear weapons tests since 2006, including two last year.

The number and variety of tests worry experts who see each step as part of a march towards a missile capable of striking America's West Coast.

The missile tests violate existing United Nations and other sanctions, which North Korea has found ways to evade. Although Mr Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have declared that the "era of strategic patience" with North Korea is over, the new US administration has not spelled out what that means.

Mr Tillerson has said Washington might eventually negotiate with North Korea under the right circumstances, but he has suggested that possibility is remote. The US will act alone if it must, he has warned, though he has not spelled out what exactly that would entail.

The Trump administration has recently leaned on China to rein in North Korea and curb illicit trade with the country, an international pariah largely cut off from the global financial system.

Given that Japan and South Korea are within range of existing North Korean missiles, Mr Trump has also sought to unite leaders of both nations behind a strongly worded US position that it will no longer tolerate the North's provocations.

The Trump administration has asked other nations around the globe to sever or downgrade diplomatic ties with Pyongyang.

Leaders of China, South Korea and Japan will be at the G-20 meeting in Germany.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appeared to share Mr Trump's frustration, if not his tone. In remarks to the news media, he vowed to work closely with the US and South Korea, but called on China and Russia to do more

"I'd like to strongly urge international society's cooperation on the North Korea issue and urge China's chairman, Xi Jinping, and Russia's President Putin to take more constructive measures," Mr Abe said.

In a daily news conference, Mr Geng Shuang, a spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry, condemned the test but countered that Beijing had "spared no effort" in its fight.

On Tuesday, Russia and China jointly proposed that North Korea put further nuclear and missile tests on hold while the US and ally South Korea refrain from large-scale military exercises. Both Russia and China oppose North Korea's nuclear weapons programme. Both also oppose the US anti-missile system being installed in South Korea.

Experts said the Trump administration does not have many choices for what to do next.

"Unfortunately, the Trump administration has few options other than robust economic pressure on China and North Korea," said Mr Anthony Ruggiero, a specialist on the long-running diplomatic and military standoff at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies. "The US wasted the last 10 years with a combination of negotiations that were destined to fail and strategic patience that failed from the start."

A new sanctions regime led by the US would be the best response, Mr Ruggiero said, because China and Russia would veto the most effective form of sanctions at the UN Security Council.

Last week, the Trump administration announced sanctions targeting a China-based bank accused of laundering money for the North Korean government and moved forward with an arms sale to Taiwan that Beijing opposes.

Mr Trump followed up with a call on Sunday to Mr Xi, in which Trump "raised the growing threat posed by North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programmes," according to the White House.

"Both leaders reaffirmed their commitment to a denuclearised Korean Peninsula," a White House statement said, while "President Trump reiterated his determination to seek more balanced trade relations with America's trading partners".

The trade reference was an implicit threat to reassert US complaints about Chinese economic practices that Mr Trump has largely set aside in recent months as he has sought to engage Mr Xi, with whom he claims a strong relationship.