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    Trump threatens North Korea "with fire and fury the likes of which the world has never seen before"; North Korea reported to be "seriously considering" a strike on Guam

     

    Asia: North Korea

     

    See also

     

    Americas: United States 

     

    Trump threatens North Korea "with fire and fury the likes of which the world has never seen before"; North Korea reported to be "seriously considering" a strike on Guam

      

    President Donald Trump said that North Korea would be met "with fire and fury the likes of which the world has never seen before"  if that country threatened the United States.  The warning came on Aug. 8, 2017 during remarks by the United States president to the press from the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey.  

     

    Trump declared: "North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen... he has been very threatening beyond a normal state. They will be met with fire, fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before." 

     

    In the background of Trump's bellicose warning was the assessment by United States intelligence analysts that North Korea had produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead.  

     

    Going back to 2014, then-commander of United States Forces Korea, Geeral Curtis Scaparrotti, expressed the view that North Korea  had the capability to miniaturize a warhead.  At the time, he was on the record saying, "I believe they have the capability to have miniaturized a device at this point, and they have the technology to potentially actually deliver what they say they have."  

     

    A year later, in 2015, North Korea was making the bold claim that it was able to miniaturize nuclear weapons.  

     

    In 2017, confidential analysis by the Defense Intelligence Agency, as reported in the  Washington Post, indicated that  North Korea had successfully produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead that could be attached to a ballistic missile.  

     

    The production of a miniaturized nuclear warhead  capable of being attached to a ballistic missile would mark a significant technological breakthrough for North Korea.   It would quite literally set North Korea on the final path to being a nuclear power, thus making that country an even more pressing threat to global security, and certainly a clear and present danger to the United States homeland.  

     

    To that particular end, United States authorities agreed that they had to be prepared to deal with the threat emanating from North Korea. While there was some confidence that the capability of North Korea's miniaturized nuclear warhead remained relatively untested, there was  collective agreement from the intelligence community that North Korea was making technological developments in the nuclear realm.  Moerover,  given the two test launched of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in July 2017 alone, it was apparent that North Korea was building on its test launch experience. These breakthrough developments would ultimately lead North Korea progressively down the path of eventually being able to successfully launch  a nuclear capable missile and strike a key target.  Such a move would yield catastrophic consequences for the overall state of global security. 

     

    Perhaps with such an end in mind, the negative response to Trump's belligerent rhetoric was bipartisan in nature.  Republican Senator John McCain said in an interview with a Phoenix radio station,  “The great leaders I’ve seen don’t threaten unless they’re ready to act, and I’m not sure President Trump is ready to act." Democratic Senator  Benjamin Cardin cast Trump's remarks as “not helpful" and said, “We should not be engaging in the same kind of blustery and provocative statements as North Korea about nuclear war.”

     

    It should be noted that while Trump was deploying heated words toward North Korea, his top diplomat, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, had been doing the opposite. Following two ICMB launches by North Korea, as well as the imposition of harsh new United Nations sanctions against Pyongyang, Tillerson made clear that his country was not seeking regime change in North Korea.  But Kim Jong-un appeared unmoved and following Trump's threats of "fire and fury," his regime was considering a strike on the United States' Pacific island territory of Guam.  

     

    In a statement disseminated by Pyongyang's state-run KCNA news agency, North Korea made clear that it was "carefully examining" plans for a missile strike on  Guam.  A spokesperson for the Korean People's Army (KPA) declared: "The KPA Strategic Force is now carefully examining the operational plan for making an enveloping fire at the areas around Guam with medium-to-long-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 in order to contain the U.S. major military bases on Guam including the Anderson Air Force Base." 

     

    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.  In 2014, then-commander of United States Forces Korea, Geeral Curtis Scaparrotti, expressed the view that North Korea  had the capability to miniaturize a warhead.  At the time, he was on the record saying, "I believe they have the capability to have miniaturized a device at this point, and they have the technology to potentially actually deliver what they say they have."  A year later, in 2015, North Korea was making the bold claim that it was able to miniaturize nuclear weapons.  

     

    Then, 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.

     

    Meanwhile, 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."

     

    By the first half of 2017, United States defense officials were making clear that there was a need to  strengthen the country's missile defenses in Hawaii.  In testimony before members of Congress, Admiral Harry Harris, the leading  commander in the Pacific, said this would be needed in response to the grave threat posed by North Korea's missile and nuclear weapons programs. While some have dismissed the notion of North Korea being able to strike United States territory as ludicrous, the fact was that Pyongyang had been extending its nuclear technology and advancing its knowledge, via its intensified test activity.  To this end, Harris noted that while defenses of Hawaii were likely sufficient at this time, there would be a need for new radar and interceptors to intercept incoming North Korean missiles in the future.  

     

    In July 2017, North Korea’s two intercontinental ballistic (ICBM) missile tests indicated that the Pyongyang had the range capability to hit the United States.  The salve for the United States was the fact that North Korea's lack of guidance technology meant that it was not guaranteed to accurately hit its target. Limited solace could also be found in the fact that  there was little evidence that North Korea possessed the technological ability to launch a miniaturized nuclear warhead attached to a missile. Likewise, there was a limited test history demonstrating that North Korean missiles were capable of re-entry.

     

    By August 2017, confidential analysis by the Defense Intelligence Agency, as reported in the  Washington Post, indicated that  North Korea had successfully produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead that could be attached to a ballistic missile.  The production of a miniaturized nuclear warhead  capable of being attached to a ballistic missile would mark a significant technological breakthrough for North Korea.   It would quite literally set North Korea on the final path to being a nuclear power, thus making that country an even more pressing threat to global security, and certainly a clear and present danger to the United States homeland.   While there was some confidence that the capability of North Korea's miniaturized nuclear warhead remained relatively untested, the two test launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in July 2017 alone made clear that North Korea was building on its test launch experience. 

     

    These breakthrough developments would ultimately lead North Korea progressively down the path of eventually being able to successfully launch  a nuclear capable missile and strike a key target.  Such a move would yield catastrophic consequences for the overall state of global security. 

     


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