The missile North Korea fired over Japan last night is being treated by that country, President Trump, and the U.S. media as an event of consequence.
"A missile launch across Japan is an outrageous act that poses an unprecedented, grave and serious threat, and significantly undermines the peace and security of the region," Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters.
"Threatening and destabilizing actions only increase the North Korean regime's isolation in the region and among all nations of the world," President Trump said in a White House statement. "All options are on the table."
The rattled reactions have become as predictable as the missile test launches that are sound and fury signifying nothing. The launch over Japan is at least North Korea's 14th missile test launch this year. The U.S. and its allies should stop swinging their rhetorical dicks and insist on a resumption of talks with as few preconditions as possible.
While North Korea's weapons capability has very slowly improved, they remain light years behind the U.S. military and would remain so for a long time, even if the U.S. suddenly stopped its massive military spending.
North Korea's launch is not the first of its kind—the regime fired a missile that flew over Japan in 2009. Unlike yesterday's missile, which Western intelligence services say was an intermediate-range ballistic missile, North Korea claimed the 2009 missile carried a space-bound satellite (it crashed far east off the coast of Japan instead).
Then-prime minster of Japan, Taro Ase, called that launch a provocative act, in spite of North Korea having given Japan prior notice. The launch prompted increased sanctions that effectively killed the possibility of restarting multi-party negotiations.
North Korea gave no notice this time. Now as it did then, Japan did not try to shoot the missile down. "The risks of trying to intercept one of these missiles and failing is extremely high," the Hoover Institution's Michael Auslin told The Atlantic. "Unless you knew for certain that either because it was an intentional launch towards a population center or an accident, these decisions have to be made in an extremely short period of time… Japan at least has the ability to attempt to act—whether it is actually prepared to do so is entirely different."
This concern raises the question of what, exactly, is accomplished by all those U.S.-Japanese military drills. The two countries launched what they called the largest joint drill of its kind just earlier this month. If these drills, which North Korea insists are provocative, too, do not increase the readiness and ability of regional powers to defend themselves, what exactly is the point of them?
A pre-emptive strike is largely a bluff, and one Trump is unlikely to be committed to. North Korea's terrain would make it an even harder country to invade. Given its history, North Korea would be an even tougher challenge than a place like Iraq to affect regime change and nation building.
North Korea does not pose an existential threat to the U.S., nor to its allies. The time for its missile launching for the benefit of TV cameras ought to come to an end. If, in the worst case, the North Koreans launched a nuclear missile that could be shot down by the U.S.'s expensive missile defense system, North Korea would find itself on the business end of a one-way Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) policy. Trump's "fire and fury" comments about the North Korean threat signaled, in Trumpian fashion, that here MAD was still in play.
Trump has spent much of his first year reaching out to China, a country he believed before taking office could force North Korea to act in a certain way. He's found out, maybe, that the reality is more complex.
Perhaps only Trump can go to Pyongyang. But even if he can't, China ought to still be capable of bringing North Korea back to the table for six-party talks that collapsed in 2008. Negotiations involving North Korea, South Korea, China, the U.S., Japan, and Russia, over the security and future of the Korean peninsula represent the best hope for a positive resolution to the crisis.