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Effective international coalition against N. Korea nowhere in sight

An effective international coalition to stand up against North Korea, which has refused to abandon its nuclear and missile programs, is nowhere in sight as Japan, the United States and South Korea struggle to join forces in responding to the growing threat from Pyongyang.

Washington has concluded that the missile North Korea launched on July 4 was an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), and is seeking tougher sanctions against the country at the U.N. Security Council (UNSC).

North Korea, however, has taken a defiant stance, saying that the country will never lay its weapons programs on the negotiation table. Accordingly, even if the UNSC were to approve tougher sanctions, it is unclear how effective they would be.

Japan and South Korea both hope to join hands with their ally, the United States, in intensifying pressure on Pyongyang to draw out concessions. However, Tokyo and Seoul feel they are in a gridlock, differing over how to respond to the secluded state. China and Russia, meanwhile, are reluctant to further pressure North Korea.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has underscored the need for an international coalition to curb the growing threat by North Korea. "Global action is required," he said in a statement condemning Pyongyang for launching an ICBM.

At the same time, however, Tillerson emphasized that Washington is seeking to respond to North Korea's threat with strengthened sanctions rather than a military option. "The United States seeks only the peaceful denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula," Tillerson said in a statement.

Tillerson also criticized countries that host North Korean workers or extend economic or military cooperation to Pyongyang. "Any country that hosts North Korean guest workers, provides any economic or military benefits, or fails to fully implement U.N. Security Council resolutions is aiding and abetting a dangerous regime," he said.

At an emergency UNSC meeting on July 5, Washington proposed tougher sanctions on Pyongyang and urge North Korea's largest trading partner, China, to implement such measures.

The Trump administration has stopped short of taking tougher measures because the estimated range of the ICBM launched by North Korea was shorter than 10,000 kilometers. Such a missile would not be able to travel far enough to strike the U.S. capital or other areas of the U.S. mainland, so the situation is not recognized as an imminent crisis for the United States.

Any military action to block North Korea's nuclear and missile development could lead to war that would be "catastrophic," as U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis put it. However, the threat posed by the North has been only growing in spite of seven rounds of sanctions by the UNSC.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute revised upward the number of nuclear weapons that it estimates North Korea possesses from 10 last year to "10 to 20" in its latest report.

Meanwhile, the Japanese government has stated that the missile North Korea launched on July 4 "is highly likely to be an ICBM."

Before leaving for Europe to meet with Group of Twenty leaders, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on July 5, "I'd like to underscore the need for the international community to cooperate closely in responding to North Korea's threat, which has heightened as a result of its ballistic missile launch yesterday."

Abe hopes to agree with the U.S. and South Korean leaders in a summit in Hamburg, Germany, on July 6 to work closely to increase pressure on Pyongyang.

However, Japanese government officials are beginning to feel that the hardline diplomatic policy toward North Korea has come to a deadlock.

Many government officials expressed hope that the Trump administration's position of not ruling out military action would serve as a deterrent against provocations from Pyongyang, but it remains unclear how effective this stance will be.

Furthermore, the Trump administration's policy toward the North still remains murky and Tokyo is struggling to coordinate its policies with Washington.

In the meantime, Japanese government officials have begun to express dissatisfaction with the U.S. government's response to North Korea's provocative acts, with a senior Foreign Ministry official saying, "I guess Mr. Trump has no choice but to urge China to take a tough stance."

Japan does not want to see heightened military tensions develop into an armed conflict, but is reluctant to change its policy direction in a way that could be interpreted as bowing to provocations by Pyongyang. Tokyo, consequently, is meandering over its strategy toward the North.

Meanwhile, South Korea viewed the North's latest missile as a new type of missile similar to an ICBM, but declined to judge whether the latest launch was successful.

At the instruction of President Moon Jae-in, South Korean forces joined with U.S. forces on July 5 to conduct a drill with ballistic missiles that Seoul claims can directly hit North Korea's leadership in Pyongyang. Still, the Moon government adheres to its position that South-North dialogue is necessary.

Moon is expected to agree with Japanese and U.S. leaders in Hamburg to increase pressure on North Korea, and ask Chinese President Xi Jinping for cooperation in stepping up pressure on the North in his first summit with the Chinese leader.

In Berlin, the South Korean leader is expected to announce his government's new policy toward its northern neighbor on July 6, emphasizing that Seoul will extend humanitarian assistance to Pyongyang to create an environment for dialogue.

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