Trump Unveils Enhanced Missile Defense Strategy as North Korean Envoy Visits Washington

Seven months after declaring the threat had been eliminated, U.S. report calls Pyongyang 'extraordinary threat' ■ Chief negotiator slated to meet Pompeo and possibly go to the White House

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the Missile Defense Review announcement at the Pentagon in Washington, January 17, 2019.
Mandel Ngan/AFP

President Donald Trump unveiled a revamped U.S. missile defense strategy on Thursday that called North Korea an ongoing and "extraordinary threat," seven months after he declared the threat posed by Pyongyang had been eliminated.

Later on Thursday, a North Korean envoy arrived in Washington for expected talks with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and a possible encounter with Trump aimed a laying the groundwork for a second U.S.-North Korea summit.

Trump's plan, which also detailed concerns about the burgeoning capabilities of Iran, Russia and China, called for developing space-based sensors to detect incoming enemy missiles and exploring space-based weapons to shoot down missiles among other steps to shield the United States. 

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The open acknowledgment in the Missile Defense Review of U.S. plans to counter Russian and Chinese technological advances likely will alarm those nations. It marked a departure from the approach taken by Republican Trump's Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama, to tamp down concerns by major nuclear powers about expanding U.S. missile defenses. 

"Our goal is simple: To ensure we can detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States - anywhere, anytime, anyplace," Trump said at the Pentagon. 

Trump did not mention the North Korean missile threat in his remarks. But acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan called North Korea's missiles a "significant concern." 

Kim Yong Chol, a North Korean senior ruling party official and former intelligence chief, arrives at the airport in Beijing to leave for Washington on January 17, 2019.

"While a possible new avenue to peace now exists with North Korea, it continues to pose an extraordinary threat and the United States must remain vigilant," the report said. 

Trump specifically mentioned Iran's capabilities. The report said Iran possesses the largest ballistic missile force in the Middle East

"Its desire to have a strategic counter to the United States could drive it to field an ICBM," the report said, referring to an intercontinental ballistic missile. 

U.S. officials have said American missile defenses are primarily designed to counter attacks from countries with more-limited arsenals like North Korea, which U.S. intelligence officials believe is still advancing its nuclear program despite a halt to missile launches last year. 

Pentagon officials contend that American missiles defenses are too few to effectively counter a major first-strike on the U.S. homeland by an advanced nuclear power like Russia or China. Washington hopes those countries will instead be deterred from attacks by America's nuclear arsenal. 

The report's release came at an awkward moment for Trump, as Pyongyang's lead negotiator in denuclearization talks with the United States Kim Yong Chol arrived in Washington, and could also go to the White House on Friday, a person familiar with the plan said, a sign of potential movement in a diplomatic effort that has appeared stalled for months.

The talks could lead to an announcement of plans for a second Trump summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un after their meeting last year in Singapore, the source told Reuters. 

Trump wrote on Twitter after the June 2018 summit that there is "no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea." 

File photo: U.S. President Donald Trump gestures as he meets with North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un at the start of their historic US-North Korea summit, at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore, June 12, 2018.
Saul Loeb/AFP

There has been no indication, however, of any narrowing of differences over U.S. demands that North Korea abandon a nuclear weapons program that threatens the United States or Pyongyang's demand for a lifting of punishing sanctions. 

Kim Yong Chol, a hardline former spy chief, arrived in Washington on a commercial flight from Beijing, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported. Yonhap and other South Korean media said he was greeted at Dulles airport by Stephen Biegun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea. 

Pompeo had planned to meet his North Korean counterpart to discuss a second summit last November, but the meeting was postponed at the last moment. 

Diplomatic contact was resumed after Kim Jong Un delivered a New Year speech in which he said he was willing to meet Trump "at any time," South Korea's ambassador to the United States, Cho Yoon-je, told reporters last week. 

Kim Yong Chol was last in Washington in June, when he delivered a letter from Kim Jong Un to Trump that opened the way for the June 12 summit in Singapore. 

That meeting yielded a pledge from the latter to work towards denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and Trump declared the next day that there was "no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea." 

"Concrete steps" 

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence acknowledged on Wednesday that efforts to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal had not made headway. 

"While the president is promising dialogue with Chairman Kim, we still await concrete steps by North Korea to dismantle the nuclear weapons that threaten our people and our allies in the region," Pence said in an address to U.S. ambassadors and other senior American diplomats at the State Department. 

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence speaks during a Missile Defense Review announcement at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, U.S., January 17, 2019.
Martin H. Simon/Bloomberg

Trump said on January 2 that he had received a "great" letter from Kim Jong Un and would probably meet him again in the not-too-distant future, but there was no rush. 

Pyongyang had stopped missile and bomb testing and if it had not been for his administration "you'd be having a nice big fat war in Asia," he said. 

CNN quoted a source familiar with the U.S.-North Korea talks as saying that Kim Yong Chol would be carrying a new letter from Kim Jong Un to Trump. 

Kim Yong Chol is the first top North Korean official to stay overnight in Washington since the late Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok did so ahead of talks with then-President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in 2000. 

Communist-ruled Vietnam, which has good relations with both the United States and North Korea, has been widely touted as the most likely venue for a second meeting between Trump and Kim Jong Un. 

The Washington Post quoted people familiar with recent diplomatic activity as saying that if announced soon, the summit would probably take place in March or April, with the coastal city of Danang the most likely venue.