As North Korea speeds its nuclear program, U.S. fears time will run out

The New York Times reports: Behind the Trump administration’s sudden urgency in dealing with the North Korean nuclear crisis lies a stark calculus: a growing body of expert studies and classified intelligence reports that conclude the country is capable of producing a nuclear bomb every six or seven weeks.

That acceleration in pace — impossible to verify until experts get beyond the limited access to North Korean facilities that ended years ago — explains why President Trump and his aides fear they are running out of time. For years, American presidents decided that each incremental improvement in the North’s program — another nuclear test, a new variant of a missile — was worrisome, but not worth a confrontation that could spill into open conflict.

Now those step-by-step advances have resulted in North Korean warheads that in a few years could reach Seattle. “They’ve learned a lot,” said Siegfried S. Hecker, a Stanford professor who directed the Los Alamos weapons laboratory in New Mexico, the birthplace of the atomic bomb, from 1986 to 1997, and whom the North Koreans have let into their facilities seven times.

North Korea is now threatening another nuclear test, which would be its sixth in 11 years. The last three tests — the most recent was in September — generated Hiroshima-size explosions. It is unclear how Mr. Trump would react to a test, but he told representatives of the United Nations Security Council at the White House on Monday that they should be prepared to pass far more restrictive sanctions, which American officials say should include cutting off energy supplies. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Understanding North Korea’s missile tests

Nuclear Threat Initiative reports: Since 2014, North Korea has dramatically altered its missile testing patterns, launching missiles much more frequently and from a variety of new locations. Recognizing the importance of understanding the proliferation implications of these patterns, the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) has created a database of every known North Korean missile launch.

The CNS database reveals more subtle changes than simply an increase in the number of missiles that North Korea has launched. The data reveals:

  • North Korea has created sites specifically dedicated to developmental testing of missiles
  • North Korea has largely abandoned its original missile test site dedicated to development and design verification tests, the Tonghae Satellite Launching Ground. The regime has shifted space launches to the Sohae Satellite Launch Center, and developmental missile tests to Wonsan
  • Many recent launches of extended range Scud and Nodong missiles, rather than being developmental in nature, have been undertaken as operational tests at relevant military units’ training grounds

Taken together, these trends make the clear and disturbing point that North Korea has been conducting launch exercises, consistent with the regime’s probable intent to deploy nuclear weapons to missile units throughout the country.

North Korea’s totalitarian regime releases propaganda rather than facts about its missile capabilities. Analysts at CNS estimate the evolution of the regime’s true capabilities by locating every test site and examining open source evidence about the tests, from regime propaganda to satellite imagery. This information helps to determine the purpose of each launch, and how well developed each missile system is. For example, if North Korea only tests a missile at a site from which it conducts developmental tests, it is highly likely the missile remains purely under development. Tests elsewhere suggest North Korea is trying to achieve some other goal than seeing whether the missile works.

North Korea established the Tonghae Satellite Launching Ground, near Musudan-ri, as its first missile testing site in 1984. Tonghae was North Korea’s primary developmental test site for its first generation of ballistic missiles. Because North Korea doesn’t disclose the names and types of its missiles, outside analysts named them after nearby locations – the villages of No-dong, Taepo-dong, and Musudan. Of the fifteen known missile launches carried out under Kim Il Sung, all but one was conducted at Tonghae. At least one-third of these developmental tests, in which North Korea experimented with different designs and attempted to perfect its reverse-engineered missile technology, ended in catastrophic failure.

Developmental testing of new missiles paused for four years after Kim Jong Il succeeded his father in 1994. Kim Jong Il restarted missile testing with an attempted Taepodong launch in 1998. The missile made it off the ground and over Japan before exploding spectacularly and splashing down into the Pacific. The immediate international outcry prompted talks between the United States and North Korea, which resulted in a ballistic missile testing moratorium.

After abandoning the moratorium in 2006, North Korea resumed missile testing. By then, it had converted the Tonghae facility entirely into a space launch facility, which the regime used for two more space launch attempts in 2006 and 2009 (both of which failed). North Korea moved developmental testing of new missiles to a new site near the city of Wonsan, usually called Kittaeryong. Of the 16 rockets that North Korea launched during Kim Jong Il’s rule, only 3 were launched from Tonghae and all of these were space launches – in 1998, 2006 and 2009. All other launches during this period occurred from the Wonsan area. This shift in behavior can clearly be seen in this interactive, which displays the test locations used by Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Un. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

North Korea isn’t testing its missiles. It’s preparing for a nuclear first strike

On March 9, Jeffrey Lewis wrote: On Monday morning, North Korea launched four missiles from the northwest corner of the country that traveled 620 miles before landing in the Sea of Japan.

While none of the launches were the long-awaited test of an intercontinental-range ballistic missile — the sort of weapon that could reach the United States — the salvo was a big deal in its own way. Pyongyang very vividly demonstrated the warnings from Thae Yong-ho, a high-ranking North Korean diplomat who defected last year and described how the country was taking the final steps to arm its missile units with nuclear weapons. North Korea is developing an offensive doctrine for the large-scale use of nuclear weapons in the early stages of a conflict. When combined with what we know about U.S. and South Korean war plans, this fact raises troubling questions about whether a crisis on the Korean peninsula might erupt into nuclear war before President Donald Trump has time to tweet about it.

In the past, North Korea tested all its No-dong missiles out of a single military test site near a village of the same name. (Why, yes, the U.S. analysts did name the missiles after the town. The emasculating quality was a pure coincidence, I am sure.) These tests were designed to demonstrate that the Scud and No-dong missiles worked. They were tests in the literal sense of the word.

In recent years, however, North Korea has started launching Scuds and No-dongs from different locations all over the damn country. These aren’t missile tests, they are military exercises. North Korea knows the missiles work. What the military units are doing now is practicing — practicing for a nuclear war.

The North Koreans haven’t exactly been coy about this. Last year, North Korea tested a No-dong missile. Afterward, North Korea published a map showing that the missile was fired to a point at sea that was the exact range as South Korea’s port city of Busan, with an arc running from the target into the ocean, down to Busan. In case you missed the map, the North Koreans spelled it out: “The drill was conducted by limiting the firing range under the simulated conditions of making preemptive strikes at ports and airfields in the operational theater in South Korea where the U.S. imperialists’ nuclear war hardware is to be hurled.”

This time, North Korea launched four “extended-range” Scud missiles that are capable of flying up to 620 miles. The map showed all four missiles landing on an arc that stretched down to the Marine Corps Air Station near Iwakuni, Japan. Once again, the North Korean statement doesn’t leave much to the imagination: “Involved in the drill were Hwasong artillery units of the KPA (Korean People’s Army) Strategic Force tasked to strike the bases of the U.S. imperialist aggressor forces in Japan in contingency.”

So why is North Korea practicing nuking U.S. forces in Japan?

The United States and South Korea are conducting their largest annual joint military exercise, known as Foal Eagle. The exercise, which is really a series of exercises, lasts two months and involves tens of thousands of U.S. and South Korean military personnel, as well as an aircraft carrier, bombers, and — guess what? — F-35 aircraft based out of Iwakuni. Foal Eagle is a rehearsal for the U.S.-Republic of Korea war plan, known as OPLAN 5015, which has been described as a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, including its leadership, as a retaliation for some provocation. Whether that’s a fair description or not, the North Koreans certainly think the annual exercise is a dress rehearsal for an invasion. This year’s menu of fun and games reportedly includes a U.S.-ROK special operations unit practicing an airborne assault on North Korea’s nuclear and missile facilities.

What North Korea is doing is simply counterprogramming the Foal Eagle with its own exercise. If we are practicing an invasion, they are practicing nuking us to repel that invasion. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Entire U.S. Senate to go to White House for North Korea briefing

Reuters reports: Top Trump administration officials will hold a rare briefing on Wednesday at the White House for the entire U.S. Senate on the situation in North Korea, senior Senate aides said on Monday.

All 100 senators have been asked to the White House for the briefing by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the aides said.

While top administration officials routinely travel to Capitol Hill to address members of Congress on foreign policy and national security matters, it is unusual for the entire 100-member Senate to go to such an event at the White House, and for those four top officials to be involved. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

China’s leader urges restraint on North Korea in call with Trump

The New York Times reports: China’s president, Xi Jinping, has urged President Trump to show restraint toward North Korea despite signs that the North may be preparing a nuclear test. Mr. Xi made the appeal in a phone call with Mr. Trump on Monday that reflected growing alarm over North Korea’s plans, which could tip the region into crisis.

The phone conversation, on Monday morning in Beijing, came after Mr. Trump had already used a meeting with Mr. Xi in Florida, a follow-up phone call, interviews and Twitter messages to press Mr. Xi to do more to deter North Korea from holding additional nuclear and missile tests. The United States and its allies have been on alert for another atomic test by the North.

In the latest call, the third between the two leaders, Mr. Xi indicated to Mr. Trump that China opposed any such test by North Korea, but he also nudged Mr. Trump to avoid a tit-for-tat response to the North’s fiery threats, according to a report on Chinese television.

“China adamantly opposes any actions in contravention of the United Nations Security Council resolutions,” Mr. Xi said, according to the report, evidently referring to a series of decisions by the council to punish North Korea for its nuclear and missile programs.

“At the same time, it is hoped that all sides exercise restraint and avoid doing things that exacerbate tensions on the peninsula,” Mr. Xi said, referring to the Korean Peninsula. “Only if all sides live up to their responsibilities and come together from different directions can the nuclear issue on the peninsula be resolved as quickly as possible.”

The comments reflected growing Chinese fears that the tensions between North Korea and the United States and its Asian allies could spiral into outright military conflict. That widening rift is presenting China with confounding choices between its longstanding ties to North Korea and its hopes for steady relations with the United States. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Instead of threatening North Korea, Trump should try this instead

John Delury writes: President Trump’s missile strike on Syria won plaudits from commentators on the left and right, with some of the enthusiasm spilling over into the debate about a “military solution” when it comes to North Korea. The comparison, like much of the administration’s rhetoric about Korea, is dangerously misleading. There is no way to hit North Korea without being hit back harder. There is no military means to “preempt” its capabilities — nuclear and otherwise — with a “surgical” strike. Any use of force to degrade its weapons program would start a war, the costs of which would be staggering.

Maybe in the era of America First, we don’t care about death and destruction being visited on the 10 million people who live in Seoul, within North Korean artillery and short-range missile range. Do we care about some 140,000 U.S. citizens residing in South Korea — including soldiers and military families at bases here, plus more in nearby Japan? Or South Korea’s globally integrated $1.4 trillion economy, including the United States’ $145 billion two-way trade with the country? Do we care about North Korean missiles raining down on Incheon International Airport, one of Asia’s busiest airports, or Busan, the sixth-largest container port in the world? What happens to the global economy when a conflagration erupts on China’s doorstep and engulfs Japan?

Surely the American public and Congress, regardless of party, can agree that these costs are unbearable and unthinkable. Given the presence of many sober-minded strategists and policymakers in the administration, it seems reasonable to conclude the military taunts are a bluff. If so, they are a distraction from the real, pressing question: How much longer should they wait on economic pressure generated by Chinese sanctions, rather than pursue diplomatic options opened up by direct dialogue and engagement? [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

North Korea warns Australia of possible nuclear strike if it ‘blindly toes US line’

The Australian Associated Press reports: North Korea has bluntly warned Australia of a possible nuclear strike if Canberra persists in “blindly and zealously toeing the US line”.

North Korea’s state new agency (KCNA) quoted a foreign ministry spokesman castigating Australian foreign minister, Julie Bishop, after she said the rogue nation would be subject to further Australian sanctions and for “spouting a string of rubbish against the DPRK over its entirely just steps for self-defence”.

“If Australia persists in following the US moves to isolate and stifle the DPRK and remains a shock brigade of the US master, this will be a suicidal act of coming within the range of the nuclear strike of the strategic force of the DPRK,” the report said.

“The Australian foreign minister had better think twice about the consequences to be entailed by her reckless tongue-lashing before flattering the US.”

Bishop had said this week on the ABC’s AM program that North Korea’s nuclear weapons program posed a “serious threat” to Australia unless it was stopped by the international community. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

U.S. unlikely to have been behind botched North Korean missile launch

The Hill reports: Experts say the United States is unlikely to have been behind North Korea’s botched missile launch last week, despite rampant speculation that the explosion was the result of an Obama-era cyber sabotage program.

The spectre of U.S. interference in the secretive missile program has shaken North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jong Un, and reportedly led to a fierce internal spyhunt.

U.S. officials have remained mum on the possibility that the military used cyber to disrupt the launch. But experts say the explosion was more likely caused by internal failure in a complex R&D process with limited resources. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

The war in Syria has been great for North Korea

Quartz reports: The civil war in Syria, which began in 2011, has been a tragedy for millions of people, including refugees fleeing the violence and residents caught in the crossfire. But for North Korea’s ruling elite, the conflict has in many ways been a good thing.

Since the 1960s, North Korea has sold arms and equipment to Syria, and provided other sorts of military-to-military assistance, such as training and technical assistance. Of particular importance, Pyongyang has helped develop Syria’s chemical weapons and ballistic missile programs.

Today, North Korea, faced with United Nations sanctions over its ongoing missile and nuclear tests, denies providing such assistance to Syria. But evidence has emerged suggesting that in one way or another, via front companies and elaborate logistics, war materials from North Korea have ended up in Syria, ultimately enriching the Kim regime.

“It’s a gold mine for North Korea,” said Bruce Bechtol, a political science professor at Angelo State University in Texas who’s penned a handful of books on the country. “This is the best thing that’s ever happened to North Korea—as long as Syria doesn’t fall, which could happen.” [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Mockery, anger in South Korea over Trump’s fake ‘armada’

CNN reports: US President Donald Trump said he was sending “an armada” to Korean waters to potentially deal with threats from Pyongyang.

But its no-show has caused some South Koreans to question his leadership and strategy regarding their unpredictable neighbor in the north.

And as the country prepares to vote for a new president on May 9, the claim could have far-reaching implications for the two countries’ relations.

“What Mr. Trump said was very important for the national security of South Korea,” Presidential candidate Hong Joon-pyo told the Wall Street Journal.

“If that was a lie, then during Trump’s term, South Korea will not trust whatever Trump says,”​ said Hong, who is currently trailing in the polls.

South Korean media also seized on the conflicting reports on Trump’s “armada” — led by the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson. [Continue reading…]

Phillip Carter writes: here is a sobering reality beyond this week’s strange “Where’s Waldo?” story of the USS Carl Vinson and its strike group: For a period of time, significant confusion existed as to the location of a U.S. aircraft carrier strike group, one of the most potent weapons in the American arsenal, at a moment of high tension on the Korean peninsula.

Although not (yet) a major crisis, this incident portends deep problems with the White House, its chain of command, and its approach to national security. At best, the Vinson episode suggests policy gaps between the president and his top military advisers over how to act toward North Korea. Worse, it appears the president has not firmly established control over the chain of command—or that he possibly overdelegated authority to his generals and admirals. Further, this incident sends deeply disturbing signals to allies and adversaries regarding the president’s control over the military and the credibility of his statements, diluting the deterrent value of American words and actions.

Let’s start with two fundamental premises of U.S. civil-military relations. First, the president is the elected commander-in-chief of the military; short of declaring war, he has the power to order military deployments and operations, and be held politically accountable for them. Second, the president ought to know with accuracy the locations and readiness of major U.S. military assets, and have the ability to command those forces as needed to protect the country.

Any departure from these norms stands out as potentially threatening to national security. When in 2007 the Air Force lost track of nuclear weapons and inadvertently allowed them to fly over the continental United States mounted on a bomber, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates rightfully saw the incident as an abomination and fired the Air Force leadership. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

An operation to sabotage North Korea’s missile program

The New York Times reports: When a North Korean missile test went awry on Sunday, blowing up seconds after liftoff, there were immediate suspicions that a United States program to sabotage the test flights had struck again. The odds seem highly likely: Eighty-eight percent of the launches of the North’s most threatening missiles have self-destructed since the covert American program was accelerated three years ago.

But even inside the United States Cyber Command and the National Security Agency, where the operation is centered, it is nearly impossible to tell if any individual launch is the victim of a new, innovative approach to foil North Korean missiles with cyber and electronic strikes.

Bad welding, bad parts, bad engineering and bad luck can all play a role in such failures — as it did in the United States’ own missile program, particularly in its early days. And it would require a near impossible degree of forensic investigation to figure out an exact cause, given that the failed North Korean missiles tend to explode, disintegrate in midair and plunge in fragments into faraway seas.

But this much is clear, experts say: The existence of the American program, and whatever it has contributed to North Korea’s remarkable string of troubles, appears to have shaken Pyongyang and led to an internal spyhunt as well as innovative ways to defeat a wide array of enemy cyberstrikes. [Continue reading…]

The same New York Times reporters covered this program in a report published on March 4. Then and now, it’s hard to tell whether these are reports about the sabotage program or elements of the program itself.

Following the March report, Markus Schiller and Peter Hayes wrote:

The New York Times article hearkens back to the movie “Independence Day”, where the world is saved from the Alien invasion by simply planting a computer virus into the mothership’s main computer by somehow just sending it over with a standard laptop. This might work in movies, but not in reality.

Perhaps the more interesting story is who leaked to the New York Times the claims of the efficacy of cyber attacks on North Korea’s missiles and why now? We wonder if it is part of a policy battle in the course of the Trump Administration’s North Korea policy review, possibly designed to get President Trump’s attention. It might also be an intentional effort to conduct psychological warfare against the DPRK by creating paranoia and purges within the DPRK missile program. It might also be a way to impress allies and third parties that the United States has been doing more behind the scenes than patiently waiting for the DPRK threat to resolve itself and imposing ineffectual sanctions. We don’t know.

Facebooktwittermail

White House deflects responsibility for aircraft carrier confusion

Politico reports: Press secretary Sean Spicer said Wednesday the White House does not bear responsibility for public statements indicating that a U.S. aircraft carrier was headed for the Korean Peninsula earlier this month when it was, in fact, sailing in the opposite direction.

All questions as to why the USS Carl Vinson and its accompanying strike group were photographed traveling south past Indonesia after U.S. officials said the vessels would be deployed in the waters off the Korean Peninsula should be directed to the Pentagon and U.S. Pacific Command, Spicer said.

Spicer said he had never addressed the timing of the Carl Vinson’s movements, only the message sent by its deployment.

“What I was asked was what signal did it send that it was going there. And I answered that question correctly at the time, that it signaled foreign presence, strength and a reassurance to allies. That’s a true statement,” Spicer said. “We were asked a question about what signal it sent. We answered the question what signal it sent. I’m not the one who commented on timing.”

Reporting by Defense News, which was soon picked up by other media outlets, showed this week that while officials from the U.S. military and the White House had indicated that the Carl Vinson would head directly from a port stop in Singapore to the Korean Peninsula, it actually headed south to participate in drills with the Royal Australian Navy. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

U.S. tough talk belies its focus on diplomacy to contain Kim

The Washington Post reports: As tensions mounted on the Korean Peninsula this month, the U.S. military made a dramatic announcement: An aircraft carrier had been ordered to sail north from Singapore toward the Western Pacific, apparently closing in on North Korea and its growing nuclear arsenal.

But the ship that some officials portrayed as a sign of a stepped-up U.S. response to threats was in fact, at the moment that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un mounted a defiant show of military force last weekend, thousands of miles away from the Korean Peninsula, operating in the Indian Ocean.

Officials’ nebulous — if not seemingly misleading — statements about the whereabouts of the USS Carl Vinson come as the Trump administration attempts to deliver a dual message on one of its most thorny foreign problems: at once illustrating a willingness to employ force against a dangerous adversary while also steering clear of steps that could spiral out of control.

A series of binary, sometimes conflicting comments delivered by top officials in the past week highlight the Trump administration’s hope that hard-line rhetoric will have a deterrent effect and, more fundamentally, the lack of attractive options it faces on North Korea. While officials are eager to signal a break from previous U.S. policy, their strategy appears to be a continuation of the Obama administration’s attempt to use international economic and diplomatic pressure to force results in Pyongyang. [Continue reading…]

The Guardian reports: The US military is considering shooting down North Korean missile tests as a show of strength to Pyongyang, two sources briefed on the planning have told the Guardian.

Amid heightened tensions over North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, the Pentagon is looking for ways short of war to pressure the country into denuclearization, particularly if Pyongyang goes forward with a sixth nuclear test.

The defense secretary, James Mattis, has briefed Congress on the option, but the military has not yet decided to intercept a test missile.

One US official said the prospective shoot-down strategy would be aimed at occurring after a nuclear test, with the objective being to signal Pyongyang that the US can impose military consequences for a step Donald Trump has described as “unacceptable”. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

In South Korea, war hysteria is seen as an American problem

Tim Shorrock writes: When I arrived at Incheon International Airport near Seoul on April 2 to start a two-month stay in South Korea, I was immediately struck by the sharp contrasts between America and this bustling country of 50 million.

First was the airport itself. Incheon is one of the best-designed and most efficient airports in the world; it’s years ahead of the dilapidated structures that US air travelers are forced to endure. The lines for immigration and customs move briskly, and weary travelers are assisted by guides who speak English and politely lead you to the right gate.

Upon entry, the government agents who stamp your passport (and demand your fingerprints on a fancy electronic device) have the same authoritarian air as in most countries. But they’re a far cry from the grim and determined Customs and Border Patrol agents who have become notorious under President Trump for their rude and insulting behavior toward foreign visitors and refugees.

Then, as soon as you emerge into the terminal itself, you encounter South Korea’s fabulous and mostly public Wi-Fi system. Smartphones and computers are immediately connected to the Internet without charge or registration, making it easy to e-mail or text friends or family upon disembarking. High-speed Wi-Fi is prevalent throughout the country, and makes South Korea the most wired place on earth.

And right across the street from the terminal is the beautiful, futuristic structure for KORAIL, South Korea’s high-speed train system, which connects Incheon with every major city in the country. As with Europe, Asia has invested heavily in rail—unlike the United States, where such systems are still pipe dreams. My 159-mile trip the next morning to Gwangju, a city of 1.5 million in the southwest that’s known as the cradle of Korea’s democratic revolution, took less than three hours.

So far, however, my stay here has overlapped with the greatest contrast of all: the sharp difference between American and South Korean coverage of North Korea’s nuclear and missile program and the huge perception gap about the situation by US and South Korean citizens. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Despite talk of a military strike, Trump’s ‘armada’ actually sailed away from Korea

The Washington Post reports: As tensions mounted on the Korean Peninsula, Adm. Harry Harris made a dramatic announcement: An aircraft carrier had been ordered to sail north from Singapore on April 8 toward the Western Pacific.

A spokesman for the U.S. Pacific Command, which Harris heads, linked the deployment directly to the “number one threat in the region,” North Korea, and its “reckless, irresponsible and destabilizing program of missile tests and pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability.”

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters on April 11 that the Carl Vinson was “on her way up there.” Asked about the deployment in an interview with Fox Business Network that aired April 12, President Trump said: “We are sending an armada, very powerful.”

U.S. media went into overdrive, and Fox reported on April 14 that the armada was “steaming” toward North Korea.

But pictures posted by the U.S. Navy suggest that’s not quite the case — or at least not yet.

A photograph released by the Navy showed the aircraft carrier sailing through the calm waters of Sunda Strait between the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Java on Saturday, April 15. By later in the day, it was in the Indian Ocean, according to Navy photographs.

In other words, on the same day that the world nervously watched North Korea stage a massive military parade to celebrate the birthday of the nation’s founder, Kim Il Sung, and the press speculated about a preemptive U.S. strike, the U.S. Navy put the Carl Vinson, together with its escort of two guided-missile destroyers and a cruiser, more than 3,000 miles southwest of the Korean Peninsula — and more than 500 miles southeast of Singapore. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Behind North Korea’s fizzled missile: Has China lost control of Kim?

Gordon G Chang writes: The quick end to Sunday’s test undercuts the fearsome image of his ballistic missiles. “The timing was a deep embarrassment for the North’s leader, Kim Jong Un,” the New York Times wrote Saturday, referring to the explosion soon after the launch.

That is not, in fact, good news. What does a deeply embarrassed dictator do next? He tests another missile or detonates a nuclear device to end his country’s celebrations on what he considers a high note. Kim has plenty of missiles, and his technicians look like they have buried, in preparation for a detonation, a nuke at the Punggye-ri site in northeastern North Korea.

Or maybe he does something else provocative.

Kim may have to do something we consider horrible if he wants to remain in power. His rule looks increasingly unstable—since the end of January there have been various incidents suggesting trouble at the top of the regime—so a humiliating episode like the almost-immediate failure of the missile Sunday could tip him over the edge.

There’s nothing more dangerous than a weak dictator who commands the world’s most destructive weapons. Friday, David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security issued a report stating that Kim may have had up to 30 nukes at the end of 2016 and the industrial infrastructure to build more at a fast clip.

And Kim also looks defiant. Washington has been issuing warnings to the North Korean leader in the days leading up to the “Day of the Sun” celebration Saturday, and so has Beijing. The missile test suggests, among other things, that Kim feels he can ignore the stern Chinese lectures delivered through various means, including the Global Times. The nationalist tabloid, controlled by People’s Daily, this week threatened restricting the flow of oil to Kim, among other measures.

If Kim in fact thinks he can safely defy Beijing, Kim may at this point be, as a practical matter, uncontrollable. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail