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Editorial: N. Korean missile launch places Pyongyang in predicament

The recklessness of the administration of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appears to know no limits.

    North Korea fired four ballistic missiles toward the Sea of Japan on March 6, three of which are believed to have splashed down in Japan's exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

    It is mere chance that no Japanese fishing boats were operating in the area at the time. Firing the missiles without advance notice is a recklessly dangerous act.

    North Korea simultaneously launched several missiles last year, dropping them in Japan's EEZ. The act of firing several missiles at once could be interpreted as an attempt by Pyongyang to display the high precision of its missiles. But why did North Korea fire the missiles at this point in time?

    First, the launch may be a noisy protest against joint military exercises by the United States and South Korea that began on March 1. North Korea could also be trying to display to the fledgling Trump administration its resolve to develop nuclear weapons and missiles.

    The launch furthermore comes in the aftermath of the killing of Kim Jong Un's half-brother Kim Jong Nam in Malaysia. North Korea has taken a defensive stance in the wake of the assassination, and it may have considered the launch an opportunity to turn its position around.

    But this smug approach merely puts North Korea in a predicament of its own making.

    The Trump administration has suggested that it may alter the policy of "strategic patience" toward North Korea that was adopted by the administration of former President Barack Obama, and could take a harsher line. Talk has already surfaced within the U.S. of once again designating North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism. Provocations by North Korea are likely to do nothing more than lead the Trump administration to adopt a hardline stance.

    The launch could also become fodder for stressing there is a need to deploy the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, missile defense system to U.S. forces stationed in South Korea. As China strongly opposes deployment of such missiles, the launch is likely to have left Beijing incensed. Furthermore, the launch took place during the National People's Congress, an important political event in China, and accordingly caused China to lose face.

    China has already announced that it will halt imports of coal from North Korea till the end of the year. For North Korea, the prospect of repairing relations with China appears likely to grow more distant.

    It also brings a dark cloud over North Korea's relations with Southeast Asia, a region with many countries hitherto friendly to the isolated nation.

    Last year, Singapore aligned itself with U.N. sanctions against North Korea, and halted the entry of North Koreans without visas.

    Malaysia, where Kim Jong Nam was murdered, also halted visa-free entry of North Koreans and expelled the North Korean ambassador.

    North Korea, which has further isolated itself from the international community, has thus become a large threat to northeast Asia.

    Later next week, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will visit Japan, China, and South Korea. This should be an opportunity to strengthen collaboration between Japan, the United States, and South Korea, and to advance cooperation with China.

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