U.S., Asia face tension after missile launch and Trump policy flip

A man watches a TV news program showing a photo published in North Korea's Rodong Sinmun newspaper of North Korea's "Pukguksong-2" missile launch, at Seoul Railway station in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, Feb. 13, 2017.(Ahn Young-joon/AP)

It comes as no surprise that North Korea is making headlines yet again for test-firing a missile. Even after the UN Security Council prohibited North Korea from carrying out missile launches in an effort to stop nuclear development, Kim Jong Un has proven time and time again that he is above international law.

This past Saturday, Feb. 11, was no different. As Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was visiting President Trump in the United States, North Korea fired a new missile, named Pukguksong-2, toward Japan, landing just 300 miles from its launch site in the Sea of Japan. In a move that China and Russia both condemned and one that Prime Minister Abe says is “absolutely intolerable,” North Korea makes a military and political stance against America.

According to North Korean news, the Pukguksong-2 is capable of distances between 1,864 and 3,417 miles. While not able to hit the U.S. mainland (with the exception of Alaska and Hawaii, San Francisco lies around 5,600 miles away from Pyongyang), the missile could be capable of packing a 1.5 ton warhead and be launched via submarine.

While the fact that there was a missile launch is nothing new – in fact, there were a reported 20 launched between January and October of 2016 – this new launch marks the first since Trump took the Oath of Office. His response will be watched.

Already there are hopeful signs. The UN Security Council members will hold a meeting per request of the U.S., South Korea and Japan, and Trump has stated that he “stands behind Japan, its great ally, 100 percent”. Has Pyongyang finally gone too far?

The launch was not the first time U.S. foreign policy with Asia was put to the test, as just days before, on Feb. 10, President Trump conceded to Beijing in a change of rhetoric that has the whole world watching.

In an effort to mend relations with China after harsh threats about trade, Trump backtracked on his comments about the “One China” policy in a phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The “One China” policy is an unofficial, confusing, worldwide policy in regards to the relationship between mainland China (People’s Republic of China) and Taiwan (Republic of China). Since 1972, the U.S. has regarded China and Taiwan, more or less, as one country; or in other words has never officially granted China sovereignty over  Taiwan nor given Taiwan independence from China.

This looked like it was going to change with President Trump. In December after the election, Trump had a “protocol-breaking” conversation with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen where they discussed many issues including economics. That is, until China came knocking.

In an effort to improve relations between the two nations and to have a civil conversation, Trump agreed to reassess his stance on Taiwan, a very sensitive topic for Beijing, as Taiwan was founded by the losers of the Chinese Civil War in an effort to flee the victorious Communists, who still are the political rulers of China.

President Trump’s reversal does less to mend relations and more to ruin face. By backing down, Trump has made himself look weak in the eyes of Asia in a time when we need to be strong. China, North Korea’s biggest trade ally on paper, is crucial in relations with the trigger-happy dictator and holds a lot of power over what resources get into the rogue nation.

By appearing weak and submissive, President Trump harms what is possibly his biggest bartering chip: unpredictability. Coming in, Trump talked big between Taiwan relations and a possible 45 percent tariff on Chinese goods. But if he is just going to crumple and fall back to the ho-hum foreign policy that has defined U.S.-China relations for the last 40 years, will Asia really respect him? Most likely not.

President Trump walks a thin line. Angering China and doing nothing about North Korea could result in a war while doing nothing may well result in conflict. He must compromise without looking weak, deal without burning bridges and gain the trust of a country still unwilling to accept him.


David Csordas is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at david.csordas@uconn.edu.