Early Tuesday morning Japan time, North Korea fired a missile over Japan's northern Hokkaido island. The missile launch represents a major North Korean escalation in its ongoing standoff with the United States, South Korea, and Japan.
This is the first time in 8 years that North Korea has fired a missile over Japanese territory, and in doing so Kim Jong Un has seized back the strategic initiative.
Kim's success in that regard is reflected by Japan's apparent failure to try and shoot down the missile. In recent weeks, the Trump administration had suggested any launch against Japanese territory would be dealt with aggressively and immediately; implying the use of anti-ballistic missile weapons or retaliation. True, Japan might say that it didn't act here because the missile's trajectory was indicative of a Western Pacific impact, but Kim will feel his roll of the dice has been vindicated.
That puts the Trump administration in a difficult position. As I noted last week, while Trump's tough-rhetoric on North Korea has been largely successful, there was a growing likelihood that Kim would launch a missile test against South Korea or Japan. That option, now rendered, allows Kim to preach defiance while avoiding Guam or another U.S. territory.
Still, the specter of a ballistic missile passing over one of America's closest allies cannot be ignored. After all, it cuts to the heart of any realistic deterrent policy.
So what should Trump do?
I think four things. First, he should work to establish a consensus with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan on what to do if another launch takes place. Here, both leaders should state any further missiles on course to transit Japan will be shot down. North Korea must know that this activity cannot become the new norm. Absent that understanding, Kim will be emboldened to further acts of aggression.
Second, the president should direct Nikki Haley to work with the U.N. security council to pass new sanctions legislation on North Korea. This should include the sanctioning of North Korean government accounts used to support its diplomats around the world, and the North's importation of machinery, electronics, and refined petroleum from China and Russia. While China and Russia might well veto such legislation, it would force China and Russia to take a stand against the international community. With export reliant economies, both nations would worry about the impacts of that vote. An able negotiator, Nikki Haley should call on allies like Britain and France to lobby on America's behalf.
Third, Trump should order the deployment of additional forces to the U.S. Military's Pacific Command. As I've explained, these deployments should be focused on air and naval striking capabilities. The intent here would not simply serve the prudent preparation for military action against North Korea's ballistic missile program, but to remind China that the U.S. sees the end game on the horizon. North Korean nuclear-ballistic capabilities are growing in many areas, and China continues to take only mild action. Put simply, either that must change or the U.S. must strike.
Fourth, as soon as is feasibly possible (following his visit to Texas), Trump should visit Tokyo and make a speech in solidarity with U.S. allies in the region. Doing so wouldn't simply calm our friends in the Asia-Pacific, it would personally stake Trump's reputation on resolving this crisis. Knowing his ego is considerable, Trump's arrival might deter those like China and North Korea who would accept the North's conduct as the new norm.
Ultimately, Kim has changed the dimensions of the crisis by this missile launch. While a diplomatic solution is both possible and preferable, Trump must ensure everyone knows that time for a peaceful solution is running out.
Author's note: An earlier version of this article suggested that the last North Korean missile to transit Japan was fired in 1998. While a missile was launched over Japan in 1998, the last such transit was in 2009.