North Korea tested an intermediate range ballistic missile, which landed somewhere in the sea of Japan, causing a brief international incident. This launch took place after months of hype and proclamations that North Korea would test a ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States. Also, the launch took place during a meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Shinjo Abe and Donald Trump, given Japan and North Korea’s contentious relationship it hardly seems like that timing was an accident.
Throughout his presidential campaign Donald Trump frequently bashed Japan and other allies for not contributing enough for their defense. Prime Minister Abe visited the United States amid a lot of speculation as to what exactly the relationship between the two countries would look like in the age of Trump. The visit had already showed signs of a continued partnership between the two countries, with Abe touting job creation and cooperation during Donald Trump’s first joint press conference with a foreign leader.
The North Korean missile test further solidified the calls for cooperation and shortly after news broke of the North Korean test, another joint press conference was scheduled between the two leaders. Just hours after the incident the men appeared on stage once again, this time to speak out against North Korea.
Prime Minister Abe spoke first and condemned North Korea’s actions as “absolutely intolerable” and declared they “must fully comply with the relevant UN Security Council resolutions.” Abe went on to discuss statements Donald Trump allegedly made during their meeting in which Donald Trump stated Japan would always have the support of the United States. Once again Abe stressed cooperation and the alliance between the two nations, specifically he claimed they would further solidify that alliance, before passing the mic to Donald Trump.
President Trump’s reaction might serve as a litmus test for how closely he tries to actualize his campaign rhetoric in the face of foreign policy challenges. During the campaign Japan was a frequent target because in candidate Trump’s eyes they were not paying enough for the protection they received from the United States. Although North Korean tests of this nature could be expected, precisely to serve as a test and a way for North Korea to gauge the new administration, Trump’s reaction was far less predictable.
Turns out though Donald Trump realized that his hard line on defense spending might be far less important than maintaining important connections abroad.
Donald Trump’s reaction was short, just a sentence, but as far as the actual substance is concerned it could be expected from most presidents before him. Trump stated, “I just want everyone to understand and fully know the United States of America stands behind Japan, it’s great ally, 100%.” One sentence and then Trump ushered Prime Minister off stage.
Prime Minister Abe, millions of Japanese citizens, and probably a lot of Korean citizens were happy to hear those words. Millions of Americans were happy to hear those words. Still, it’s pretty remarkable they needed to be said at all. The fact that in the face of North Korean aggression the United States had to clarify its commitment to Japan is pretty telling. The foreign policy landscape has shifted substantially, even if things end up exactly in the same place, this press conference proved they are very much still up in the air.