Against the backdrop of the latest North Korean missile test, a new poll finds nearly two-thirds of Americans are extremely concerned the Pyongyang regime has nuclear weapons and say they would back the use of U.S. military force to protect allies in the region in the event of a serious conflict.
The Pew Research Center released the poll, taken well before the new missile test, on Wednesday, just two days before a meeting between President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping in which North Korea's behavior is likely to be high on the agenda.
U.S. and South Korean officials identified the projectile launched Wednesday as a KN-15 medium-range missile, which was first publicly tested in February. After the initial test, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said the missile, called “Pukguksong-2”, gives Pyongyang another nuclear attack capability against the United States and South Korea.
The missile uses pre-loaded solid fuel, which means it takes a shorter time to prepare it for a launch than the liquid propellant missiles that make up most of its arsenal.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson acknowledged Wednesday's launch in a terse statement. "The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment."
The topic is expected to be a major part of the talks Friday and Saturday between Trump and Xi in Mar-a-Lago.
As North Korea's neighbor and primary economic partner, Beijing has enormous leverage on Pyongyang but has been reluctant to bring about the collapse of Kim's government because of the danger of unleashing a flood of refugees. Beijing is also wary of taking actions that might result in a unified Korea, likely allied with the U.S., on its doorstep.
In an interview this week with the Financial Times, Trump issued China an ultimatum if it fails to pressure North Korea to scrap its nuclear program, saying Washington is ready to take action unilaterally.
“Well, if China is not going to solve North Korea, we will,” he told the newspaper.
Asked how he would deal with Pyongyang, Trump said: “I’m not going to tell you. You know, I am not the United States of the past where we tell you where we are going to hit in the Middle East.”
In the Pew poll taken between mid-February and mid-March, Republicans were more likely than Democrats — 70% compared to 61% — to favor using force if there were an attack, as required by treaties signed with Japan, South Korea and the Philippines.
North Korea fired the projectile in the latest missile test from land around the eastern coastal city of Sinpo. It reached an altitude of 114 miles and traveled 36 miles before falling into the sea, according to a senior official with South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Yonhap news service reported. The U.S. Pacific Command, based in Hawaii, said the missile flew for nine minutes.
The overall distance is considerably shorter than the 300 miles reached in the February test, indicating the latest launch might have been a failure.
North Korean state media said the projectile is a surface-to-surface missile that can carry nuclear warheads. It is likely to be an upgraded version of the submarine-launched missile named “Pukguksong” launched last summer. Many South Korean experts say the “Pukguksong-2” missile would be a greater security threat because it can be launched anywhere from a ground-based mobile vehicle.
Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS think tank in Honolulu, said he expected North Korea would do something to coincide with the Trump-Xi summit, perhaps even conducting a nuclear test. The missile launch may be a precursor, with more to come as the summit starts later this week, Cossa said, according to the Associated Press.
“I’ve joked before that they don’t mind being hated but they definitely hate to be ignored,” Cossa said.
Recent satellite imagery show possible preparations for a new atomic test at the North’s main nuclear test site, such as the laying of communication cables used to initiate a test and collect data. North Korea’s state media has also said the world will soon witness what it calls “eventful successes” the country achieves in the space development. Washington, Seoul and others call the North’s space program a cover for its long-range missile development program.
The test also comes amid political upheaval in Seoul, where Park Geun-hye, the nation’s first female president, was impeached and removed from power last month amid charges of bribery, extortion and abuse of power. The emergency National Security Council meeting called to discuss the launch was presided over by Kim Kwan-jin, the national security adviser to Acting President Hwang Kyo-han.
South Korea’s Foreign Ministry called the North’s latest missile launch a “reckless provocation” that poses a threat to international peace, while Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the country lodged a strong protest over the launch.
North Korea is pushing hard to upgrade its weapons systems to cope with what it calls U.S. hostility. Many weapons experts say North Korea could have a functioning nuclear-tipped missile capable of reaching the continental U.S. within a few years. North Korea carried out two nuclear tests last year.
Contributing: Associated Press