Back To Top

Pentagon chief contradicts Trump on NK’s missile launches

Acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said Wednesday the recent missile launches by North Korea were a violation of UN Security Council Resolutions, contradicting US President Donald Trump.

North Korea launched multiple projectiles on May 4 and 9 -- of which the latter involved what were officially identified as short-range missiles -- in what is seen as a protest over the deadlock in nuclear talks with the US.

While Trump played down the launches, his officials have been making contradictory statements.

US acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan (Reuters-Yonhap)
US acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan (Reuters-Yonhap)

“Let me just be clear, these were short-range missiles. Those are a violation of the UNSCR (resolutions),” Shanahan told reporters on the plane en route to Jakarta, Indonesia, for his weeklong trip to Asian countries.

Following North Korea’s launch of multiple projectiles into the East Sea, Trump maintained that dialogue will continue with the communist state, highlighting that the short-range missiles were not a threat to the US.

Referring to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as smart, Trump also said this month’s missile launches only involved “small weapons.”

“I think he (Kim) very much believes ... I talk to him a lot about it, and he’s very much into the fact ... like I do, that North Korea has tremendous economic potential like perhaps few other developing nations anywhere in the world,” Trump said Monday in Tokyo, where he held a summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Monday.

“He knows that. With nuclear, that’s never going to happen. Only bad can happen. He understands that. He is a very smart man. He gets it well.”

Shanahan’s remarks contradict Trump’s comments but side with US national security adviser John Bolton, who has also called the missile launches violations of UN resolutions.

“In terms of violating Security Council resolutions, there is no doubt about that,” Bolton said in Tokyo on Saturday, before Trump began his four-day visit there.

UN resolutions ban the communist state from launching any kind of ballistic missile. Trump appears to be refraining from characterizing the missile launches as violations of the resolutions, as that may cause further harm deadlocked nuclear talks with North Korea.

Still, Shanahan said the government is unified on denuclearization, when asked about the mixed opinions coming from the US.

“We’re still aligned around full denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. There’s been no wavering on that, right? No wavering,” he said.

“Our job in the Department of Defense (is to) enforce sanctions. We’ll continue to enforce sanctions. Our job in the Department of Defense (is to) be ready in the situation that diplomacy fails. So my focus is on readiness. So sanctions enforcement and readiness. So I think we’re very, very consistent, very aligned there.”

The apparent division within the US administration seems to reflect department chiefs’ personalities and the characteristics of the government entities, Hong Min, director of the North Korean research division at the Korea Institute for National Unification, told The Korea Herald.

In other words, for Shanahan, it would be important to speak from the perspective of the Department of Defense, which is in charge of the military and national security, while hawkish Bolton maintains his longstanding hard-line stance on North Korea.

As for US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo -- who echoes Trump in saying that a denuclearization deal with Pyongyang is still possible after the missile launches -- his role of sending diplomatic messages on behalf of the Department of State would have an influence, Hong explained.

“Still, the recent remarks publicly demonstrate that the White House is not managing well to bring about a unified voice,” Hong added.

Nevertheless, the differing messages from top US officials lead to the big picture -- that the US is open to continuing dialogue, and North Korea would be aware of this, said Shin Beom-chul, director of the Center for Security and Unification at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

“Shanahan and Bolton are speaking as the leaders (of their respective departments) and are acknowledging the missile launches as they are. But they have not said what they will do against the military actions (by the North),” Shin said.

“North Korea would also know that Trump is willing to continue to negotiate. And it is not unusual for North Korea to denounce hard-line politicians, like Bolton.”

Nuclear talks between Pyongyang and Washington came to a halt after the second summit between Trump and Kim in Hanoi in February failed to bring about an agreement on the scope of North Korea’s denuclearization.

By Jo He-rim (