Does North Korea even care how the US responds to its missile tests?

Story highlights

  • US Secretary of State issues a 23-word response to North Korean missile test
  • Analysts say this could indicate new approach by the Trump administration

Hong Kong (CNN)The United States' terse, 23-word response to the latest North Korean missile test is a stark departure from previous statements -- but is also unlikely to make much of a difference to North Korea's weapons program, according to experts.

The test, which sent a missile into the sea off North Korea's east coast Wednesday, occurred ahead of a hugely important meeting between the leaders of the US and China this week and has been described by one analyst as an insult from Pyongyang to US President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping.
    "It was an airborne middle finger to Trump and Xi before they sit down for their summit," said Euan Graham, director of the international security program at Australia's Lowy Institute.
    The US response, delivered via Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, was short and sharp -- "The United States has spoken enough about North Korea". It was very different from previous lengthy, threat-laden responses.
    And while Tillerson's taciturn comments were instantly criticized online, analysts said it was difficult to gauge if his approach would make much of a difference compared to his predecessors'.
    Nick Bisley, director of La Trobe Asia, called it a mistake to assume North Korea is like "a spoiled child". He said the country has a fixed set of aims and ambitions, and want a nuclear weapon attached to a ballistic missile.
    A press release "is not going to prompt them to fire off more missiles," he said.
    Alexander Neill, a security expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies Asia, said Pyongyang was not seeking a response with its recent test, but sending a message.
    "This is more a sign of bravado," he said. "This is Kim Jong Un saying despite all the strictures placed on the North, they're still capable of carrying on their weapons programs immaterial of outside pressure."
    Issuing responses to such displays may therefore be a loser's game no matter their content, said Graham.
    "The likelihood is there are going to be tons of tests this year, so do you continue to put out pro forma statements for each one?"

    New tactic?

    The Trump administration has vowed progress on North Korea, and said it is willing to go it alone without China, usually seen as vital to putting pressure on Pyongyang.
    Bisley said that while Trump has talked about being different on North Korea, Tillerson's statement is the first public sign that there might actually be some departure.
    "But it's very hard to see how you break with Obama and Bush policy on North Korea without making things a lot more dangerous," he added.
    What has changed is that there is now a great deal of confusion and speculation over tactics on both sides of the divide.
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    Graham, meanwhile, said North Korea and the US are mirroring each other's behavior at the moment.
    "You have (Pyongyang) saying 'deal with it,' and another 'deal with it' in response."
    Bisley said this tactic, if deliberate, compliments the broader idea Trump has about being unpredictable about foreign policy.
    "If your opponents don't know what you'll do or where your limits are, then you're at a big advantage," he said.
    This is usually something that has worked to Pyongyang's advantage; it remains to be seen how the North Koreans will react to a dose of their own medicine.