Asia: North Korea
Americas: United States
Special Report: Belligerence, brinkmanship, and threatening war rhetoric between United States and North Korea; is nuclear war imminent?
Ahead of a meeting between the leaders of the United States and China, North Korea fired a ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan. In the background of this development, Trump warned that the United States would act alone against North Korea if China failed to do so. But Trump appeared to credit Chinese President Xi Jinping with working to resolve the threat emanating from Pyongyang following a meeting with the Chinese leader. China was soon offering North Korea an incentive to back off from its nuclear activities and ambitions by promising its protection. However, North Korea appeared undeterred and carrid out a missile launch, which admittedly ended in failure. And the United States continued to flex its muscles by claiming that it had sent the carrier USS Carl Vinson to the Korean Peninsula. However, the Trump administration was soon forced to admit that the carrier and strike force group were , in fact, headed to the Indian Ocean for joint exercises with the Australian Navy. Meanwhile, North Korea had promised to "ruthlessly ravage" the United States if it attacked North Korea. Building on that threat, North Korea soon warned of a nuclear attack on the United States in response to any aggression from that country as well as regular missile testing in defiance of international law.
On Feb. 12, 2017, North Korea fired a ballistic missile from its Banghyon air base in North Pyongan province on the Korean peninsula. The missile flew east for approximately 300 miles towards the Sea of Japan but officials from Japan noted that the missile did not land in Japanese territorial waters. Reports suggest that the missile was an intermediate range Musudan, capable of flying 2,500 miles and thus reaching the United States Pacific territory of Guam.
It was the first such act of belligerence from North Korea since the Trump administration in the United States took office, and ensued at a time when Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was in the United States to meet with President Donald trump. Japanese officials made clear that they would make a “strong protest” to North Korea over the incident. Meanwhile, United States Defense Secretary James Mattis made clear to North Korea that any use for nuclear weapons by Pyongyang would be met with “an effective and overwhelming” response. Mattis also reminded the world that the United States THAAD missile defense system would be sent to South Korea, as planned.
It should be noted that the missile test was carried out in violation of prevailing United Nations resolutions intended to stymie North Korea’s nuclear activities. To date, North Korea has continued to act in contravention to international law.
In the first week of March 2017, North Korea launched four ballistic missiles from the Tongchang-ri region, near the border with China, and towards the Sea of Japan.
The government of Japan confirmed that three missiles fell into Japanese marine jurisdiction, prompting Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of that country to characterize North Korea's actions as a "new stage of threat."
This latest act of belligerence from North Korea was believed to be in reaction to Foal Eagle military exercises going on between South Korea and the United States. It was also being watched by the international community with concern as all such missile testing would be useful to advancing North Korean missile technology.
It should be noted that due to prevailing United Nations sanctions, North Korea has been prohibited from carrying out any missile or nuclear tests. As such, the test firing of the missiles was another flagrant act of defiance from Pyongyang with regard to international law.
On April 3, 2017, North Korea fired a ballistic missile from the eastern port of Sinpo into the Sea of Japan. The United States military's Pacific Command said the missile was very likely a KN-15 medium-range ballistic missile. According to South Korean officials, the missile flew 40 miles before landing in the Sea of Japan.
Of note was the fact that the missile launch occurred ahead of a highly anticipated meeting between United States President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping. While the issue of North Korea's nuclear program, as well its belligerent actions in violation of international law, were topics expected to be discussed between the two leaders, the diplomatic climate was less than optimal.
Indeed, only days before, Trump said United States would act alone against North Korea if China failed to do so. In an interview with the Financial Times at the start of April 2017, United States President Donald Trump said that his country would "solve" the nuclear threat emanating from North Korea, unilaterally, if China failed to act.
Trump said, "China has great influence over North Korea. And China will either decide to help us with North Korea, or they won't. And if they do that will be very good for China, and if they don't it won't be good for anyone.” Trump explained, "If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will. That is all I am telling you.” When he was asked if he believed the United States could succeed alone at ending the nuclear threat posed by North Korea, he replied: "Totally."
Trump’s comments were likely to be met with alarm across the world, as they built upon a statement made by United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who during a trip to Asia in March 2017, noted that pre-emptive military action was an option that remained “on the table.”
Trump’s comments came ahead of a significant bilateral meeting set to be held with the Chinese leader, Xi Jingping at the president’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. Trump was making clear that he would to use trade as an incentive to pressure China. To that end, in the interview with the Financial Times, Trump noted that "trade is the incentive.” He added, “It is all about trade." It was not clear if Trump would bring up the issue directly with the Chinese leader during the meeting, or at a future occasion. However, Trump was on the record via the social media outlet, Twitter, saying, “The meeting next week with China will be a very difficult one in that we can no longer have massive trade deficits.”
It was unclear how China would respond to this type of pressure or if would even by productive. While China banned North Korean coal imports — an income source for North Korea — it has been reticent to cripple Pyongyang completely, fearing that a collapse of the country and an influx of North Korean refugees flowing across the border into China. Also of concern would be the likely unification of the two Koreas, with the South being home to a strong United States military presence.
For its part, China declined to issue anything other than a perfunctory statement about the impending meeting between Trump and Xi. In that statement by State Councilor Yang Jiechi, Beijing made clear that the meeting between Xi and Trump was of "utmost importance in China-US relations" and would be instrumental in ”promoting peace, stability and prosperity... for the whole world."
Nevertheless, China has in the past advanced a "double halt" proposal that would entail North Korea’s suspension of its nuclear program, along with the simultaneous cessation of joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea. But the United States has shown no interest in this proposal, noting that there was no equivalence between the nuclear and missile activities undertaken by North Korea in violation of international law, and “lawful, longstanding joint security exercises “ with South Korean allies in the region.
On April 4, 2017, in the aftermath of North Korea's latest missile launch, United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson characterized the move as "yet another" intermediate range ballistic missile. Indeed, Tillerson refused to offer more insight, saying instead, "The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment."
A week later on April 11, 2017, North Korea warned of a nuclear strike on the United States if it were provoked by American aggression. North Korea said via its official Rodong Sinmun newspaper: "Our revolutionary strong army is keenly watching every move by enemy elements with our nuclear sight focused on the U.S. invasionary bases."
This threat by North Korea emerged after the United States announced that it was moving the aircraft carrier strike group, Carl Vinson, toward the Korean peninsula.
White House spokesperson, Sean Spicer, said Trump had placed North Korea "clearly on notice" while dismissing Pyongyang's nuclear attack threat. Spicer said, "I think there is no evidence that North Korea has that capability at this time. Threatening something that you don't have the capability of isn't really a threat."
On April 13, 2017, United States President Donald Trump said that North Korea was a problem that "will be taken care of." Trump was responding to speculation that North Korea could carry out a sixth nuclear test.
Trump also appeared to credit Chinese President Xi Jinping with working to resolve the threat emanating from Pyongyang. Trump said of the Chinese leader with whom he met at his Mar a lago resort in Florida: "I have really gotten to like and respect President Xi. ... He's a very special man. I think he's going to try very hard."
These remarks by Trump, should be regarded as a departure from statements made prior to his meeting with the Chinese president, in which he threatened to use trade as a pressure tactic.
For its part, China was soon offering North Korea an incentive to back off from its nuclear activities and ambitions. Via the state-backed Chinese newspaper, Global Times, Beijing suggested said the best option for North Korea would be to relinquish its nuclear program, in return for protection from China. The Global Times editorial read as follows:
“As soon as North Korea complies with China’s declared advice and suspends nuclear activities ... China will actively work to protect the security of a denuclearized North Korean nation and regime." The threats from North Korea discussed below suggested that Chinese influence on Kim Johg-un's regime was limited.
Meanwhile, NBC News reported that the Trump administration was considering a pre-emptive strike on North Korea, should it show signs of conducting another nuclear test or launching missiles to coincide with key historic anniversaries. This report raised concerns about the consequences of such pre-emptive action on global security.
Perhaps in response to these anxieties, an official from the Trump administration denied the notion of a pre-emptive strike on North Korea, calling it "flat wrong." As well, the Pentagon reacted by stating that, as a policy, it would not "publicly speculate on possible scenarios." In an official statement, Dana White, a Pentagon spokesperson, said, "Commanders are always considering a full range of options to protect against any contingencies." She added, "Our commitment to the defense of our allies, including the Republic of Korea and Japan, in the face of potential threats, remains steadfast."
Attention was particular trained on North Korea's "Day of the Sun," the 105th anniversary of the birth of state founder Kim Il Sung on April 15, 2017. But a missile launch on that day ended in failure when it exploded seconds after being launched.
On April 16, 2017, United States Vice President Mike Pence traveled to South Korea and from that location warned North Korea not to provoke the Trump administration. Mike Pence said, "North Korea would do well not to test [Trump's] resolve."
For his part, during an interview with Fox Business Network the previous week, Trump offered no details on his strategy against North Korea, except to say "We are sending an armada, very powerful. We have submarines, very powerful, far more powerful than the aircraft carrier, that I can tell you."
As discussed above, it had already been reported that Trump ordered the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier group to be moved in the direction of the Korean peninsula in a show of force and as a warning to Kim Jong-Un. However, in fact, the carrier USS Carl Vinson and strike force group were headed to the Indian Ocean for joint exercises with the Australian Navy -- quite a significant distance from Korean Peninsula.
The White House explained its misleading claims by saying that it had relied on statements from the Defense Department, although the incorrect explanation came from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
Undeterred by warnings from the United States or incentives from China, North Korea soon promised to "ruthlessly ravage" the United States if it attacked North Korea. Via North Korea's official KCNA news agency, the military issued the following statement: "Our toughest counteraction against the U.S. and its vassal forces will be taken in such a merciless manner as not to allow the aggressors to survive." As before, the Trump White House dismissed the claim, maintaining that Pyongyang was unable to carry out such a threat.
But by April 18, 2017, North Korea was warning of a nuclear attack on the United States in response to any aggression from that country. Moreover, North Korea was promising " to test missiles weekly" in an interview with BBC News. Vice-Foreign Minister Han Song-ryol said, "We'll be conducting more missile tests on a weekly, monthly and yearly basis." he also promised an "all-out war" would result if the United State took military action against North Korea. Perhaps most alarming was Han's promise to strike with a nuclear weapon as he said, "If the U.S. is planning a military attack against us, we will react with a nuclear pre-emptive strike by our own style and method."
Adding to the climate of belligerence, brinkmanship, and threatening rhetoric, United States Vice President Mike Pence again warned North Korea not to test the resolve of the United States, saying, "The sword stands ready."
Editor's Note on North Korea's Nuclear Capability:
The main question is whether or not North Korea can make good on its threats against South Korea, other east Asian counties, as well as the United States, and its allies.
The vast majority of North Korea's missiles were believed to be short-range and medium-range Rodong missiles, rooted in Soviet-era Scud missiles. Most nuclear experts believe that North Korea would be most likely to place a nuclear warhead on a medium-range Rodong missile, rather than an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), since North Korea has no test history in that regard. The general assessment was that North Korea had not yet made technological strides in building an ICBM capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.
It was clear that both South Korea and Japan were within range of potential North Korean missile attacks. North Korea’s medium-range Nodong 1, a single-stage liquid-propelled weapon based on Soviet “Scud” technology, could reach Japanese and South Korean targets, according to an International Institute for Strategic Studies overview of North Korea’s missile program. However, that technology was not known for its targeting prowess and was thus not to be regarded as a "precision strike" mechanism.
Obviously, at an even further distance, the Nodong 1 could not really be regarded as a serious threat against Guam. It was possible that North Korea could deploy its multi-stage intermediate range ballistic missile, the Taepodong, against the United States base on Guam, but the record for the Taepodong was not stellar, even failing during flight testing.
In April 2013, North Korea moved a medium-range missile, known as a Musudan or Nodong B, to its east coast. It was not known if there was a warhead mounted on the missile, or, if the movement of the missile was part of the preparations for yet another missile test. While this Musudan/Nodong B missile has a range of 3,000 kilometers (1,875 miles), which would put all of South Korea, Japan and possibly Guam in its range, there was no reliable test history to ensure precision. A missile launch would ostensibly be aimed at acquiring that flight test history, thus driving South Korea to deploy warships with missile defense systems to the coasts.
It should be noted that the Kn-o8 missile was believed to have enough range to hit United States terrain such as Alaska, Hawaii, and Guam. This missile was actually displayed at a recent North Korean military parade. However, there were some suggestions that the missile was not yet viable, with some experts even suggesting it was only a "mock-up" missile.
The longer range option for North Korea would likely be the multi-stage rocket, the Unha-3, which was used to launch a satellite into space in late 2012. Theoretically, the Unha -- with its range of 10,000 kilometers -- could deliver a nuclear warhead-sized payload as far as Alaska or Hawaii or even California. However, as noted by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), previous launches of Unha-based rockets have not been terribly successful, raising questions about the technology’s reliability. Moreover, unlike most intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICMBs) which use solid fuel, the Unha-3 is powered by liquid fuel, which cannot be stored for long periods inside the rocket. Accordingly, the Unha-3 was a liquid-fueled rocket, it would have to sit on a launch pad for lengthy periods of time for fueling, leaving it essentially vulnerable to a strike. For all these reasons, the CNS has concluded that while the Unha was evidence of North Korea's missile capability, it was not deemed to be "a reliable system capable of delivering a nuclear weapon to the continental United States.”
Still, the navy of South Korea obtained first stage debris from the 2012 Unha launch and concluded that North Korea had made some technological strides. Notably, the missile showed a capacity for steering thanks to the use of small auxiliary engines instead of jet vanes.
Another consideration as regards North Korea's progress on nuclear development was the use of uranium versus plutonium in nuclear testing. It is widely believed that North Korea used plutonium as fissile material for nuclear tests undertaken in 2006 and 2009. But there were suspicions by experts that North Korea might have used uranium in its recent (February 2013) nuclear test. The use of uranium could indicate North Korea's intent to expand its nuclear arsenal through uranium enrichment.
In 2013, the general consensus was that North Korea had not (yet) developed the technology to manufacture a miniaturized nuclear device small enough to fit on a ballistic missile, which would be needed to carry out a nuclear attack on the United States.
North Korea has carried out nuclear weapons tests and has made it clear that future tests were in the offing. But producing a nuclear explosion was not the same as producing a nuclear device small enough to fit on the top of a missile that could be delivered across an extensive range of territory. Indeed, not only do nuclear warheads have to be small enough to fit on a missile, they also have to be able to durable enough to withstand intense heat, as well as the vibration of re-entry, and they need to possess the precision to arrive at their intended targets. As noted by Greg Thielmann, a senior fellow at the Arms Control Association, "Based on the testing we've seen and some other assumptions about North Korean abilities, we don't think they're ready to arm an ICBM with a nuclear warhead yet even if they had an ICBM, which they don't yet."
That being said, a new assessment of North Korea’s nuclear capability conducted by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) of the Pentagon concluded with "moderate confidence" that North Korea had, for the first time, learned how to manufacture a nuclear weapon small enough to be delivered via a ballistic missile. The precise language used by the Defense Intelligence Agency was as follows: “North currently has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles however the reliability will be low."
The assessment, portions of which were publicized in a report by the New York Times on April 11, 2013, was a sobering and disturbing revelation at a time of heightened tensions on the Korean peninsular.
Related to this report was emerging insight derived from debris from the rocket used by the North Koreans to launch a satellite into space in December 2012. The United States Navy was able to retrieve the front section of the rocket for study by experts, thus contributing to assessments about possible warhead designs by the North Koreans. According to media reports, that front section of the satellite rocket offered scientists evidence that North Korea was manufacturing the missile’s cone at dimensions suitable for a nuclear warhead, and intended to function on a long-range missile capable of re-entry to the earth’s atmosphere from space.
Anxieties over this possible benchmark by the North Koreans were likely to be assuaged by the general view that such a nuclear weapon would likely be hampered by low reliability -- a plausible deduction given North Korea's poor record of developing accurate weapons and its limited test history of missiles in its possession. As well, even if North Korea did make technological strides and was now able to make a deliverable warhead, it would still have to be able to withstand intense heat and the vibration of re-entry, and would to be sufficiently tested for target precision, as noted above. To that end, North Korea has no test history of a re-entry vehicle and without that functional technology, it cannot deliver a warhead.
In recent years, North Korea has made claims of miniaturization. Indeed, in January 2016, North Korea claimed that successfully carried out its first underground test of a miniaturized hydrogen bomb. While experts have discounted North Korea's claim of thermonuclear strides, and concluded that North Korea more likely tested a boosted fission device rather than a hydrogen bomb, there was not enough verifiable data available to prove of disprove the miniaturization assertion by North Korea.
It should be noted that in a report to the United States Congress at the start of May 2013, the United States Department of Defense made clear that North Korea was aiming to move closer to its goal of striking the United States with a nuclear-armed missile. There was no estimate as to when North Korea might achieve that capability; however, the report surmised that progress on this front would be dependent on North Korea's degree of investment in its military program. And to that end, North Korea was believed to be committed to becoming a nuclear powerhouse, irrespective of its domestic challenges of famine, starvation, and economic strife. The report emphasized the view that North Korea's key strategic aim was to deploy "coercive diplomacy" to force the international community to accept its nuclear ambitions. No reference in this report was made of the aforementioned conclusions of the DIA.
For its part, the United States government has long maintained the position that it has the ability to protect the homeland. To that end, in mid-March 2013, the Obama administration in the United States said it would deploy additional ballistic-missile interceptors along the country's Pacific Coast, with an eye on protecting the United States from a potential attack from North Korea. The deployment of additional ballistic-missile interceptors would increase the number (currently based in California and Alaska) from 30 to 44. As well, the United States moved its sea-based X-Band radar platform, normally based in Hawaii, closer to the North Korean coast, with the intent of monitoring potential attempts from North Korea to launch a long-range missile. The radar system also possesses the capability to search and track targets, as well as communicate with interceptor missiles at overseas bases that can shoot down missiles. By April 2013, the United States decided to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system to Guam.
The anti-ballistic missile interceptor system and the X-Band radar platform do not guarantee protection against a possible North Korean attack; however, they are intended to deter Pyongyang, which has been known to have only a limited intercontinental ballistic missile arsenal. Experts have concluded that North Korea simply does not have the military capability to carry out a nuclear strike on United States territory.
In May 2013, in an effort to show that the United States was fully prepared to defend itself from the potential nuclear missile threat posed by North Korea or any other belligerent nation state, the Missile Defense Agency along with the United States Navy completed a successful test of a missile defense system as it destroyed a target launched in the Pacific Ocean. According to the Department of Defense, a short-range ballistic missile target was launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility on the Hawaiian island of Kauai; the USS Lake Erie was able to detect and track the missile, then launch a blocking missile with a kinetic warhead, which successfully destroyed the target. United States officials said the test operation in Hawaii demonstrated that the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system was fully functional.
Should a confrontation actually emerge, North Korea would be helped by the fact that its army is the fifth largest in the world; however, it is also inexperienced having not seen combat since 1953, and having been deprived of the superior and sophisticated training available to the smaller South Korean military, or the extensive United States military industrial complex. As well, a great deal of North Korea's military equipment is outdated in comparison to Western powers. That being said, even outdated military equipment can still (presumably) function and thus North Korea poses a real and serious threat to global security.
Retired United States Admiral Dennis Blair, a former head of the United States Pacific Command and director of national intelligence in the Obama administration, cautioned against taking a sanguine stance in response to the North Korean threat posed in 2013. He said in an interview with Bloomberg News, “I’m not relaxed about this one...I think this one’s more dangerous."
Most experts on North Korea posit the view that Pyongyang is not really prepared to ignite a conflict that would ensure its own destruction; however, they note that Kim Jong-un's inexperience could lead to misunderstanding and miscalculations with potentially catastrophic consequences. For example, regardless of its intended target, a missile launched by the North that appears to be headed towards South Korea or Japan -- accidentally or otherwise -- would clearly yield a response from those countries or the United States. That response could itself be a catalyst for a deadly confrontation among players armed with no shortage of conventional weapons, not to mention nuclear bombs.
Indeed, Admiral Samuel J. Locklear, the top United States commander in the Pacific, said during testimony before the Senate Armed Services committee on April 9, 2013, that while the United States would not opt to shoot down a North Korean missile aimed for open waters, interceptors would be used to defend against a North Korean missile perceived as threatening the interests of the United States or its allies. It was an unknown matter as to how a paranoid regime like North Korea would itself respond to such defensive action.
Meanwhile, as noted by then-United States Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel of his country's ability to respond to threats posed by North Korea: "We have every capacity to deal with any action that North Korea would take, to protect this country and the interests of this country and our allies." At the same news conference with Hagel, General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the United States military Joint Chiefs of Staff, would not say if he believe North Korea had been able to make a nuclear warhead small enough to fit onto a ballistic missile; however, he warned that the United States need to be prepared for the worst possible scenarios. Dempsey said: "They [the North Koreans] have conducted two nuclear tests. They have conducted several successful ballistic missile launches. And in the absence of concrete evidence to the contrary, we have to assume the worst case, and that's why we're postured as we are today."
In 2014, North Korea was showing little restraint on the matter of ballistic missile tests and was now threatening to carry out another nuclear test -- this one of a "new form" variety. Once again, in keeping with Martin Dempsey's prudent warning mentioned just above -- in the absence of clear data regarding North Korea's nuclear capabilities and recent technological strides, the global community interested in security and stability would do well not to dismiss North Korea as simply indulging in saber rattling. The 2016 nuclear test carried out by North Korea would underline this warning in stark terms.
In 2016, following North Korea's claim of having produced a hydrogen bomb, along with its launch of the Kwangmyongsong-4 satellite into space, questions about North Korea's intercontinental ballistic missile technology, capable of delivering a nuclear bomb, again surfaced. Of note was the question of whether or not North Korea could dispatch a nuclear-armed missile to a target in another country, such as Japan or the United States. As before this question focused on the matter of whether or not North Korea's intercontinental ballistic missile technology was capable of transporting a nuclear payload accurately over a long distances.
In truth, only intense testing for reliability could guarantee such an end and North Korea's test history remained limited. But even satellite launch -- even failed ones -- provide data for missile technology experts and that fact cannot be ignored. Still, North Korea would have to be able to successfully develop a miniaturized nuclear weapons that could fit on the top of a rocket, and it would also have to be stable enough to withstand intense heat and re-entry into the atmosphere. There were some fears being expressed by United States experts that North Korea had made strides in the miniaturization process; however, the government of the United States has insisted this was not the case. The "re-entry" aspect was also unsettled as some experts have suggested that North Korea may well have developed a "re-entry vehicle." Of course the remaining problem for North Korea was that there was little guarantee that its missiles could be delivered with reliability and accuracy.
Given these considerations, back in 2015, the United States National Security Council spokesperson, Patrick Ventrell, issued the following statement: "Our assessment of North Korea's nuclear capabilities has not changed. We do not think that they have that capacity." He added, "However, they are working on developing a number of long-range missiles, including intercontinental ballistic missiles, that could eventually threaten our allies and the homeland."
That warning could only be understood as even more pertinent in 2016 when an assessment by South Korea indicated that North Korea may have developed a miniaturized nuclear warhead on a medium-range missile. That news, if true, would bolster North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's claims that his country had developed miniaturized nuclear warheads that could be mounted on ballistic missiles. Of course, there was actually no conclusive evidence of the assessment discussed by South Korea. Nevertheless, there seemed to be a willingness to consider the risk posed by North Korea as real. At a Pentagon briefing in the United States, Pentagon spokesperson Captain Jeff Davis said, "We know that they've said they have that capability, and we have to take them at their word. But we have not seen them demonstrate it, so we don't share that assessment necessarily but we do accept what they say as a threat we need to take as real."