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TOKYO — The United States did not need to respond to North Korea’s latest missile launch because it was a failure, the White House said Sunday, as Vice President Pence arrived in Seoul on the first leg of a four-country trip to Asia. 

As Pence was departing from Alaska — a day after a huge military parade in Pyongyang — North Korea launched a ballistic missile that exploded within a few seconds.

North Korea had been expected to do something provocative to mark the most important day on the regime’s calendar, the April 15 anniversary of founder Kim Il Sung’s birthday.

Tensions in the region had been running high amid expectations of a nuclear test or a missile launch, with President Trump vowing to “properly deal with” North Korea if China would not. 

But a White House foreign policy adviser traveling with Pence said that the United States did not need to take action “to reinforce their failure.” North Korea had fired numerous medium-range missiles, as Sunday’s appeared to be, so one more made little difference.

“If it had of been a nuclear test then other actions would have been taken from the U.S.,” the adviser told reporters on the vice president’s plane.

[N. Korea didn’t test a nuclear weapon, but it did try to launch another missile]

Some analysts were puzzled by this.  

“Not sure why failed missile tests (still banned by UNSC) are seen as less provocative,” said Kent Boydston, a North Korea-focused research analyst at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. He was referring to U.N. Security Council resolutions banning North Korea from conducting nuclear tests or launching missiles. “They may fail but they improve each time,” Boydston wrote on Twitter

Indeed, while the latest missile exploded soon after launch, experts say that North Korea is able to learn from its mistakes and hone its technology. It had repeated failures with other missiles, including the medium-range Musudan and a submarine-launched ballistic missile, before successfully firing both. 

North Korea’s behavior will be the focus of Pence’s trip to Asia, with a senior administration official saying that the vice president would be discussing “the belligerency of North Korea” at every stop. 

After stopping in Seoul, Pence will travel to Tokyo, Jakarta and Sydney. 

North Korea’s missiles are a particularly complicated issue in South Korea.

The conservative government of former president Park Geun-hye, who was impeached last month, had agreed to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, antimissile battery to defend against North Korea’s rockets.  

South Korea made this decision in July last year after much equivocation. China strongly objects to the battery, and in particular its radar system, which Beijing worries will be used to peer into China. 

Beijing has made its unhappiness known with a wide economic boycott of everything from K-pop concerts and toilet-seat imports to tour group travel to South Korea.  

[North Korea’s display of new missiles is worrying, analysts say ]

Now, South Korea is heading toward a snap presidential election on May 9 to replace Park, and the THAAD system is a core issue. 

Moon Jae-in, the progressive candidate who had been leading in the polls, has promised to review the previous government’s decision to host THAAD. Apparently sensing a worsening political environment, the U.S. military sped up the deployment to try to get everything in place before the election. 

But now Moon is facing a strong challenge from a more centrist candidate, Ahn Cheol-soo, who has said he will respect the Park administration’s agreement with the United States.  

“It’s a critical point for the defense of South Korea in recognizing it’s not an offensive weapon. It’s there to prevent rockets slamming from the North Koreans,” an American official said while previewing Pence’s trip.  

The complicating factor here is China. China wants the missile battery gone, and the United States wants China to crack down on North Korea. 

Although Trump had a cordial summit with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, in Florida earlier this month, the North Korea issue threatens to drive a wedge between them. 

[Here are the missiles North Korea just showed off, one by one]

China on Friday warned that “storm clouds” were gathering. 

Foreign Minister Wang Yi urged the United States and North Korea not to push their recriminations to a point of no return and allow war to break out on the peninsula.

On Sunday, China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, spoke to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson by telephone, and the pair “exchanged views on the current situation on the Korean Peninsula,” China’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

China says it cut off coal imports from North Korea in February, in accordance with sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council.

The Global Times newspaper, which does not necessarily reflect official policy, recommended that Beijing convey a clear message to Pyongyang: that if it conducts a sixth nuclear test, the Chinese government would support stiffer U.N. sanctions to cut off “the vast majority” of its oil supplies to North Korea.

The U.S. Navy sent a strike group to Korean waters last week, but defense officials have said that tougher sanctions and pressure was still the favored approach to dealing with North Korea.

“We’ve got a range of options, both militarily, diplomatic and others . . . at disposal for the president should he choose to use them,” the White House foreign policy adviser told reporters on Air Force Two. “But for this particular case [of the failed missile launch] . . . we don’t need to expend any resources against that.” 

Tensions are expected to continue for several weeks at least. 

Large-scale annual exercises between the South Korean and U.S. militaries will continue until the end of April, and North Korea will mark another important date — the anniversary of the foundation of the Korean People’s Army — on April 25.  

Simon Denyer in Beijing contributed to this report.

Read more:

As North Korea celebrates anniversary, its neighbors are united by jitters

Trump thought he could muscle China over North Korea. It’s not that easy.

As North Korea’s arsenal grows, experts see heightened risk of ‘miscalculation’

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