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Fresh Off Missile Launch, North Korea Moving Toward 'Greatly Extended Strike Range'

Kim Jong Un follows the launch of a long-range rocket that blasted off from Tongchang-ri in North Korea's northwestern coast on Feb. 7, 2016. (Kyodo)

WASHINGTON — The White House said it was responding to Pyongyang’s latest ballistic missile test over the weekend with a “message of solidarity” amid get-tough calls from both sides of the aisle.

“North Korean leader Kim Jong-un likely ordered the task of developing a surface-to-surface Pukguksong-2 missile based on the successful [submarine-launched ballistic missile] test carried out in August,” an official from Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said today, according to Yonhap. “We have reached an assessment that the North is in the process of developing a ballistic missile with a greatly extended strike range.”

Sunday morning’s missile launched from Bangyon air base was assessed to be a “modified Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missile,” the news agency added, launched at a high angle and splashing into the East Sea.

“North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S.,” Trump tweeted at the beginning of the year. “It won’t happen!”

Asked Sunday on ABC if the missile test crossed President Trump’s red line, senior policy advisor Stephen Miller said “the message we’re sending to the world right now is a message of strength and solidarity.”

“We stand with Japan and we stand with our allies in the region to address the North Korean menace,” Miller said. “…These are complex and difficult challenges. And that’s why President Trump is displaying the strength of America to the whole world and it’s why we’re going to begin a process of rebuilding our depleted defense capabilities on a scale we have not seen in generations.”

North Korea conducted the test as Trump was entertaining Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at his Mar-a-Lago resort over the weekend; the leaders got the news while at a dinner and reportedly discussed it there in the restaurant with club members. After the two met at the White House on Friday, Abe said the leaders called for North Korea “to abandon nuclear and ballistic missile program and not to make any more provocations.”

There has been no statement from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson; there have been no State Department press briefings yet in the Trump administration.

Farhan Haq, deputy spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, called the missile launch “a further troubling violation of Security Council resolutions.”

“The DPRK leadership must return to full compliance with its international obligations and to the path of denuclearization,” Haq said. “The Secretary-General appeals to the international community to continue to address this situation in a united manner.”

In a letter to Trump on Friday, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific, and International Cybersecurity Policy, urged the administration to “prioritize efforts to stop North Korea’s illicit nuclear and ballistic weapons programs, human rights abuses, and malicious cyber activities.”

“Pyongyang’s behavior threatens not only our allies in East Asia, but also U.S. national security and the American homeland,” Gardner wrote, advocating the enforcement and imposition of additional sanctions as well as enhancing U.S. defense posture in the region.

“In addition, we must continue to conduct regular American show-of-force exercises near North Korea, such as nuclear bomber overflights and an enhanced U.S. military presence. Pyongyang must know that any armed aggression against our allies will receive a swift and deadly rebuke,” the senator added. “…We must continue efforts to build a strong trilateral alliance between United States, ROK, and Japan.”

“Strengthening this alliance can arguably provide the most effective policy tool to deter Pyongyang and to promote lasting peace and security in the region. We must continue to conduct regular high-level trilateral summits, as called for by NKSPEA. We should encourage more high-profile joint exercises with these strong allies, such the trilateral missile defense exercises conducted in June 2016. We must encourage both sides to fully implement and build on the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), signed in November 2016,” he continued.

Gardner said the administration must “shine a light on the human suffering of the North Korean people, both through the imposition of sanctions against human rights abusers as well as support for U.S. and international efforts to provide credible information and communication tools for the North Korean people.”

On CBS Sunday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said North Korea’s recent behavior was a test of Trump as well as routine.

“South Korea is probably more susceptible to North Korea’s virulence than any other country. And there was some doubt cast on the relationship in the campaign by the then candidate Trump. So, do the same thing with South Korea that he did with Japan, and do it quickly,” Schumer said.

“The real answer to curtailing North Korea is China,” he added. “Like on so many other areas, China has been woefully inadequate. And they could squeeze North Korea economically. Ninety percent of the imports and exports go through China. And I think we have to tell the Chinese that they have to put the wood to North Korea.”

On his first overseas trip as secretary of Defense to Japan and South Korea this month, James Mattis vowed that the United States would step up to defend Asian allies in light of “some of the provocations out of North Korea and other challenges that we jointly face.”

Former Ambassador to South Korea Christopher Hill, who also served as assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in the George W. Bush administration, told MSNBC this morning that “what happened over this weekend, I think, is more a dress rehearsal for a crisis.”

“And I guess the problem the Trump administration continues to have is they don’t seem to have too many people, you know, who are working on these issues. So it’s still a sort of ‘Home Alone’; you could see that the secretary of State, barely in his office, wasn’t seen this weekend,” Hill said. “And obviously…the national security advisor seems to have other things on his mind right now.”