North Korea backs off Guam missile-attack threat

The Wall Street Journal reports: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has decided not to launch a threatened missile attack on Guam, Pyongyang’s state media reported on Tuesday, but warned that he could change his mind “if the Yankees persist in their extremely dangerous reckless actions.”

The report, published early Tuesday, could help dial back tensions that had spiraled last week following an exchange of threats

Mr. Trump warned Pyongyang last week that the U.S. military was “locked and loaded” and could engulf the North in “fire and fury,” while North Korea, through its state media, had threatened to fire four missiles in a bid to surround the U.S. territory of Guam in “enveloping fire.”

North Korean state media said in its report Tuesday that Mr. Kim had made his decision not to fire on Guam after visiting a military command post and examining a military plan presented to him by his senior officers. [Continue reading…]

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Trump threats are wild card in showdown with North Korea

The New York Times reports: After a four-day fusillade of apocalyptic threats against North Korea, President Trump left many in Washington and capitals throughout the Pacific wondering whether it was more method or madness. Among those wondering were members of Mr. Trump’s own administration.

It was not the first time in his unconventional presidency that Mr. Trump had unnerved friend and foe alike, but never before had it seemed so consequential. Unrestrained attacks on uncooperative members of his own party, the “dishonest media” and the cast of “Saturday Night Live” generally do not raise fears of nuclear war. But as with so much with Mr. Trump, the line between calculation and impulse can be blurry.

In the broadest sense, Mr. Trump’s “fire and fury” and “locked and loaded” warnings fit the strategic imperatives of the advisers who gave him classified briefings at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., over the last week. The president showed resolve in the face of Pyongyang’s defiance, as his aides had counseled, while increasing pressure on China to broker some kind of deal to denuclearize the tinderbox Korean Peninsula.

But Mr. Trump, who bridles at being stage-managed, ignored their advice to project dignified steadfastness. Carefully calibrated briefings for the president by Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, the national security adviser, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis came out through a Trump bullhorn, magnified and maximized for effect. For perhaps the first time in generations, an American leader became the wild card in a conflict typically driven by a brutal, secretive despot in Pyongyang. [Continue reading…]

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Trump considers sanctions against China while seeking its help on North Korea

The New York Times reports: In a diplomatic gamble, President Trump is seeking to enlist China as a peacemaker in the bristling nuclear-edged dispute with North Korea at the very moment he plans to ratchet up conflict with Beijing over trade issues that have animated his political rise.

Mr. Trump spoke late Friday with his counterpart, President Xi Jinping of China, to press the Chinese to do more to rein in North Korea as it races toward development of long-range nuclear weapons that could reach the United States. Mr. Xi sought to lower the temperature after Mr. Trump’s vow to rain down “fire and fury” on North Korea, urging restraint and a political solution.

But the conversation came as Mr. Trump’s administration was preparing new trade action against China that could inflame the relationship. Mr. Trump plans to return to Washington on Monday to sign a memo determining whether China should be investigated for intellectual property violations, accusing Beijing of failing to curb the theft of trade secrets and rampant online and physical piracy and counterfeiting. An investigation would be intended to lead to retaliatory measures.

The White House had planned to take action on intellectual property earlier but held off as it successfully lobbied China to vote at the United Nations Security Council for additional sanctions on North Korea a week ago. Even now, the extra step of determining whether to start the investigation is less than trade hawks might have wanted, but softens the blow to China and gives Mr. Trump a cudgel to hold over it if he does not get the cooperation he wants.

While past presidents have tried at least ostensibly to keep security and economic issues on separate tracks in their dealings with China, Mr. Trump has explicitly linked the two, suggesting he would back off from a trade war against Beijing if it does more to pressure North Korea. “If China helps us, I feel a lot differently toward trade, a lot differently toward trade,” he told reporters on Thursday. [Continue reading…]

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Despite rhetoric on North Korea, U.S. military posture hasn’t really changed

NPR reports: President Trump’s “locked and loaded” remark on Friday — part of his ongoing exchange with the North Korean regime — might have set the world more on edge. But if the U.S. military is preparing for a major conflict, there is little evidence of it.

As of Friday morning, no U.S. aircraft carrier was on patrol in the Asia-Pacific region. The USS Carl Vinson and USS Ronald Reagan have both returned to their respective home ports, San Diego and Yokosuka, Japan.

The USS Nimitz Strike Group — often on station in the western Pacific — is deployed to the Persian Gulf, supporting the U.S.-led effort against ISIS.

There are about 29,000 American troops permanently stationed in South Korea. Annual U.S.-South Korea military exercises begin Aug. 21 but are conducted primarily with forces already in place.

And U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis on Thursday appeared to downplay the possibility of armed conflict.

“My mission, my responsibility is to have military options if you need it,” Mattis said. “However, right now, Secretary [of State Rex] Tillerson, Ambassador [to the U.N. Nikki] Haley, you can see the American effort is diplomatically led, it has diplomatic traction, it is gaining diplomatic results.” [Continue reading…]

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‘Kim Jong-un is here to rule for decades, playing the long game’

The New York Times reports: In China, the man threatening to fire missiles at the United States is often derided as a chubby brat. In the United States, a senator recently referred to him as “this crazy fat kid.” President Trump once called him “a total nut job.”

But the target of all that scorn, Kim Jong-un, the 33-year-old leader of North Korea, has long been underestimated.

Mr. Kim was the youngest of three sons yet leapfrogged his brothers to succeed his father, Kim Jong-il. Many analysts dismissed him as an inexperienced figurehead when he took power at 27; some predicted he would never last. But almost six years later, there is little doubt he is firmly in control.

Now, against long odds, Mr. Kim is on the verge of making his isolated, impoverished nation one of very few in the world that can hit the United States with a nuclear missile — defying not only the Trump administration but also international sanctions and North Korea’s traditional allies in Beijing.

Some have urged President Trump to open negotiations with him. But it is unclear whether Mr. Kim is interested in talking, or what if anything he might demand in exchange for freezing or abandoning his nuclear program. He has made building a nuclear arsenal a top priority, arguing that it is the only way the North can guarantee its security and develop its economy.

His ultimate motives, like many details of his life, are uncertain. Since taking power, Mr. Kim has yet to travel abroad or host a visit from another head of state. Only a few people outside North Korea have been allowed to meet him, among them the former basketball star Dennis Rodman, a Japanese sushi chef and the vice presidents of Cuba and China.

What little is known of Mr. Kim’s record suggests ruthlessness — and some ideological flexibility.

South Korean intelligence officials say Mr. Kim has executed scores of senior officials, including his own uncle, a wily power broker who had been seen as his mentor. He is also assumed to have ordered the assassination of his half brother, who was poisoned by VX nerve agent at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia in February.

Yet Mr. Kim is also credited with loosening state controls on the economy and engineering modest growth, and regaining some of the public confidence that the dynastic regime enjoyed under his grandfather and lost under his father, whose rule is remembered for a devastating famine.

“Smart, pragmatic, decisive,” Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, said of Mr. Kim. “But also capricious, moody and ready to kill easily.” [Continue reading…]

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Is it time to accept the reality of a nuclear-armed North Korea?

John Cassidy writes: In May of 2013, Terence Roehrig, the director of the Asia-Pacific Studies Group at the U.S. Naval War College, in Newport, Rhode Island, wrote a brief on the North Korean nuclear situation. “Given its rhetoric and continued testing of both nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, Pyongyang will likely go beyond its current capability to pursue a small operational program, perhaps 20-40 warheads, though these figures are speculative,” the report, which was published by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, at Harvard, said. “Should the DPRK seek to develop a small operational nuclear weapons capability there may be little that can be done other than to make this a long and costly process.”

At the time, the Obama Administration—like the Bush and Clinton Administrations before it—was pursuing a policy of “denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula, which involved trying to persuade Kim Jong-un, the young dictatorial leader of North Korea, to give up on his nuclear program. Roehrig expressed skepticism about whether this policy would work, noting, “Some continue to hope that the DPRK may yet be willing to relinquish its nuclear weapons for a suitable package of incentives, but that outcome appears increasingly unlikely.” In the coming years, Roehrig went on, “deterrence on the Korean Peninsula is likely to have a new dimension—North Korea with nuclear weapons. Whether this reality is recognized by the international community or not, all countries will need to figure out how to deal with a nuclear North Korea while maintaining peace and security in the region.”

Three and a half years later, Roehrig’s analysis looks prescient. [Continue reading…]

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Beyond bluster, U.S., North Korea in regular contact

The Associated Press reports: Beyond the bluster, the Trump administration has been quietly engaged in back channel diplomacy with North Korea for several months, addressing Americans imprisoned in the communist country and deteriorating relations between the long-time foes, The Associated Press has learned.

It had been known the two sides had discussions to secure the June release of an American university student. But it wasn’t known until now that the contacts have continued, or that they have broached matters other than U.S. detainees.

People familiar with the contacts say the interactions have done nothing thus far to quell tensions over North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile advances, which are now fueling fears of military confrontation. But they say the behind-the-scenes discussions could still be a foundation for more serious negotiation, including on North Korea’s nuclear weapons, should President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un put aside the bellicose rhetoric of recent days and endorse a dialogue.

Trump refused to discuss the diplomatic contacts. “We don’t want to talk about progress, we don’t want to talk about back channels,” Trump told reporters Friday.

The diplomatic contacts are occurring regularly between Joseph Yun, the U.S. envoy for North Korea policy, and Pak Song Il, a senior North Korean diplomat at the country’s U.N. mission, according to U.S. officials and others briefed on the process. They weren’t authorized to discuss the confidential exchanges and spoke on condition of anonymity. [Continue reading…]

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If missiles are headed to Guam, here is what might stop them

The New York Times reports: North Korea’s threat to launch four intermediate-range ballistic missiles into the ocean near Guam could mark the first combat test of the sophisticated missile defense systems of the United States and its Asian allies.

The launches might not happen for any number of reasons. North Korea’s Hwasong-12 missiles might fail, or the United States or its allies could destroy them on the launchpad. Japan and the United States might also decide to do nothing and let the missiles splash harmlessly into the sea.

But if the four Hwasong-12s do make it off the ground, the options for stopping them mostly rely on hitting them on the way down — in their “terminal” phase.

On the Way Up

The Hwasong-12, a domestically developed liquid-fueled missile, has a maximum range of 3,000 miles, and hits an altitude of about 470 miles on the way to its destination. The velocities needed for those numbers mean that by the time the missile has been in the air one minute, it is already traveling several times the speed of sound.

At those speeds, a missile trying to chase and hit it from behind would have no chance during this part of the flight, called the “boost phase.” The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, or Thaad, several of which are now stationed in South Korea, could use its radar to track the launches of the North Korean missiles. But it is not designed to hit them as they climb into space.

At one point, the United States Air Force poured billions of dollars into a huge laser mounted on a Boeing 747 that was designed to destroy enemy ballistic missiles during the boost phase — and it worked. But it was so expensive, and required the laser-equipped aircraft to fly so close to enemy territory, that it was abandoned. [Continue reading…]

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Gaming out the North Korea crisis: How the conflict might escalate

The Washington Post reports: A military confrontation with North Korea may now be “inevitable,” says Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) The United States is “done talking” about North Korea, tweets U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. President Trump threatens “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” then says maybe his language “wasn’t tough enough.”

The North Koreans return verbal fire, talking of using “absolute force” to hit the U.S. territory of Guam and even “turn the U.S. mainland into the theater of a nuclear war.”

In this moment of heated, belligerent rhetoric, planners in and out of government are diving into decades of plans and projections, playing out war games, engaging in the macabre semi-science of estimating death tolls and predicting how an adversary might behave. Inside Washington’s “what if?” industry, people at think tanks, universities, consultancies and defense businesses have spent four decades playing out scenarios that the Trump administration now faces anew.

The pathways that have been examined fall into four main categories: doing nothing, hitting Kim Jong Un’s regime with tougher sanctions, pushing for talks, and military confrontation. An armed conflict could take place in disparate spots thousands of miles apart, involving any number of nations and a wide variety of weapons, conventional or nuclear.

In hundreds of books, policy papers and roundtable discussions, experts have couched various shades of armageddon in the dry, emotion-stripped language of throw-weights and missile ranges. But the nightmare scenarios are simple enough: In a launch from North Korea, a nuclear-tipped missile could reach San Francisco in half an hour. A nuclear attack on Seoul, South Korea’s capital of 10 million people, could start and finish in three minutes. [Continue reading…]

It seems to me that the greatest danger of miscalculation by North Korea derives from Kim Jong Un’s assessment of Donald Trump’s capacity to trigger military action.

While North Koreans are acutely aware of the mismatch between the Hermit kingdom and the U.S. in terms of military strength, on a personal level Kim probably views Trump as a contemptible figure who is weak and lacking authority.

On one side is a leader who has zero tolerance for even a hint of dissent and who is presented to his people as a god-like figure whose ruling power is absolute, and on the other side is a man viewed by much of his own population as an unstable dunce — a man whose every utterance requires qualification from close aides whose most frequent message is that Trump should not be taken at his word.

Trump’s lack of credibility now poses a real threat to global security, because it risks triggering a sequence of actions resulting in nuclear war.

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U.S. and South Korea to stage huge military exercise despite North Korea crisis

The Guardian reports: US and South Korean militaries will go ahead with massive sea, land and air exercises later this month, despite a spiralling situation in which North Korea has threatened to fire missiles towards a US Pacific territory.

The annual joint exercises, named Ulchi-Freedom Guardian, have long been planned for 21-31 August, but now come at a time when both Washington and Pyongyang are on heightened alert, raising the spectre of a mishap or overreaction.

The timing is doubly concerning as it is within a timeframe in which Pyongyang says it will be ready to fire four Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missiles toward the US-run island of Guam, an unusually specific threat against the US.

Washington and Seoul say the exercises, involving tens of thousands of American and South Korean troops, are a deterrent against North Korean aggression.

In the past, the practices are believed to have included “decapitation strikes” – trial operations for an attempt to kill Kim Jong-un and his top generals, further antagonising a paranoid leadership. [Continue reading…]

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Guam Homeland Security releases fact sheet in light of North Korea threats

Pacific Daily News reports: Guam Homeland Security issued a new fact sheet Friday, which the agency says will help residents prepare for an imminent missile threat.

The information was released following this week’s threat by North Korea to launch a missile attack against Guam.

The advice includes tips such as: “Do not look at the flash or fireball – It can blind you” and “Take cover behind anything that might offer protection.”

“Lie flat on the ground and cover your head. If the explosion is some distance away, it could take 30 seconds or more for the blast wave to hit,” the sheet states.

During a press conference at Adelup late Friday afternoon, Gov. Eddie Calvo told reporters that the threat level remains the same and that the island is “safe and sound.”

“There are no changes,” Calvo said. “Everyone should continue to live their lives.”

While the governor said there’s no imminent threat to the island, he said families should still be prepared any situation, including inclement weather, and establish a family emergency plan.

Homeland Security says residents should prepare an emergency supply kit and a family emergency plan. During an imminent missile threat, authorities recommend taking cover as quickly as possible under a concrete structure or below ground after an attack warning is issued.

People should also avoid going outside for at least 24 hours to avoid any possible radioactive material, unless otherwise told by authorities. [Continue reading…]

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China warns North Korea: You’re on your own if you go after the United States

The Washington Post reports: China won’t come to North Korea’s help if it launches missiles threatening U.S. soil and there is retaliation, a state-owned newspaper warned on Friday, but it would intervene if Washington strikes first.

The Global Times newspaper is not an official mouthpiece of the Communist Party, but in this case its editorial probably does reflect government policy and can be considered “semiofficial,” experts said.

China has repeatedly warned both Washington and Pyongyang not to do anything that raises tensions or causes instability on the Korean Peninsula, and strongly reiterated that suggestion Friday.

“The current situation on the Korean Peninsula is complicated and sensitive,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in a statement.

“China hopes that all relevant parties will be cautious on their words and actions, and do things that help to alleviate tensions and enhance mutual trust, rather than walk on the old pathway of taking turns in shows of strength, and upgrading the tensions.” [Continue reading…]

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North Korean threat to Guam tests credibility of Kim and Trump

The New York Times reports: North Korea’s vow to ignite an “enveloping fire” of test missiles near the American island of Guam is the first time it has specified a target with so much detail, escalating a showdown between Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, and President Trump.

For Mr. Kim, failure of the plan announced on Thursday, which includes precise details like splashdown points and exact travel times for four test missiles, would be a potentially costly blunder that could subvert his authority.

For Mr. Trump, whose dire warnings to North Korea — which he further escalated on Thursday — have echoed Mr. Kim’s own screeds, a successful North Korean test would be an embarrassment that could force him into exceedingly difficult choices about military action.

But North Korea’s prospective test also includes some maneuvering room for a possible compromise, South Korean analysts said. North Korea said the missile launches were still in the planning phase and would not be finalized until later this month, raising the possibility of delay or cancellation.

The four Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missiles to be aimed toward the vicinity of Guam, home to a strategic American base, would fly 2,085.7 miles in 17 minutes, 45 seconds, North Korea said in announcing the plan. The missiles would splash down 18.6 to 24.8 miles from Guam’s coast, the North said.

“By revealing this detailed plan, North Korea is trying to show that its Hwasong-12 missile is a reliable system and that it has capabilities of operating nuclear missiles,” said Shin Beom-chul, a security expert at the government-run Korea National Diplomatic Academy in Seoul.

Even though North Korea has conducted 80 missile tests under Mr. Kim, it has never launched a missile toward a target as far as Guam and has never disclosed such precise flight data in advance. [Continue reading…]

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Trump reiterates warning to North Korea: ‘Fire and fury’ may not have been ‘tough enough’

The Washington Post reports: President Trump warned North Korea on Thursday that “things will happen to them like they never thought possible” should the isolated country attack the United States or its allies.

Trump told reporters here that his Tuesday statement threatening “fire and fury” may not have been “tough enough,” even as he sought to reassure an anxious world that he has the situation under control.

“Frankly, the people who were questioning that statement — was it too tough? Maybe it wasn’t tough enough,” Trump said. “They’ve been doing this to our country for a long time, for many years, and it’s about time that somebody stuck up for the people of this country and for the people of other countries. So, if anything, maybe that statement wasn’t tough enough.”

As the war of words continued for a third day, Trump made no reference to an undercurrent of concern among some within his administration about his rhetoric, or to the widespread nervousness and disapproval expressed by U.S. allies. The exchanges, including a North Korean threat to Guam, have rattled a world wondering what will be next. [Continue reading…]

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North Korea details Guam strike plan and calls Trump ‘bereft of reason’

The Guardian reports: North Korea has defied threats of “fire and fury” from Donald Trump, deriding his warning as a “load of nonsense” and announcing a detailed plan to launch missiles aimed at the waters off the coast of the US Pacific territory of Guam.

A statement attributed to General Kim Rak Gyom, the head of the country’s strategic forces, declared: “Sound dialogue is not possible with such a guy bereft of reason and only absolute force can work on him”. The general outlined a plan to carry out a demonstration launch of four intermediate-range missiles that would fly over Japan and then land in the sea around Guam, “enveloping” the island.

“The Hwasong-12 rockets to be launched by the KPA [Korean People’s Army] will cross the sky above Shimani, Hiroshima and Koichi prefectures of Japan,” the statement said. “They will fly for 3,356.7 km for 1,065 seconds and hit the waters 30 to 40km away from Guam.”

The statement said the plan for this show of force would be ready by the middle of this month and then await orders from the commander-in-chief, Kim Jong-un. [Continue reading…]

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If Trump wants a nuclear attack against North Korea, his military advisers have few other options

The Washington Post reports: The dueling threats issued by President Trump and the North Korean military have prompted questions about U.S. procedures to launch a preemptive nuclear attack. The answer is stark: If the president wants to strike, his senior military advisers have few options but to carry it out or resign.

The arrangement has existed for decades, but is salient after Trump warned Tuesday that future threats by North Korea will be “met with fire and fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.” Pyongyang responded by saying it is considering a preemptive missile strike against Guam, and Trump doubled down on his remarks Thursday by refusing to take a U.S. preemptive strike off the table and suggesting his comments might not have been tough enough.

“I don’t talk about it,” Trump said of a potential preemptive strike. “We’ll see what happens.”

Administration officials, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, have sought to ease the tension, while at the time same time warning North Korea that if it carries out an attack, it will be met with a crushing response. But they also have underscored that it is Trump’s prerogative to use whatever rhetoric he believes is appropriate as commander in chief. [Continue reading…]

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How three recent launches signaled new leaps in North Korea’s missile capabilities

The Washington Post reports: It wasn’t a big surprise, but it was a big deal — so much so that North Korea issued commemorative stamps. Two successful missile launches in July almost certainly proved that the country had produced an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking the United States. And according to U.S. intelligence analysts, the country also has nuclear warheads small enough to fit on them.

Nonproliferation experts had long assumed that the secretive country’s nuclear capability was further along than many people wanted to believe, but seeing the proof was still jarring, particularly because the successful tests came less than a month apart.

North Korea has launched 14 missile tests in 2017, and 10 were successful, according to a database maintained by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. A test in May and the two in July represented giant leaps forward in technology.

The missile tested in May was an intermediate-range projectile that on a more horizontal trajectory could probably reach Guam, according to physicist David Wright, co-director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Global Security Program. On Aug. 8 and 9, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un threatened to attack Guam, a key U.S. air and naval site, after President Trump warned of “fire and fury” if North Korea made more threats.

The missiles tested in July were the ones the world had been dreading: two-stage Hwasong-14 ICBMs that appeared quite capable of reaching the U.S. mainland. A two-stage rocket has a second fuel supply that takes over when the first burns out, allowing it to fly farther than a single-stage rocket.

Wright calculated that, depending on fuel, the weight of a warhead and the rotation of Earth, the first ICBM would have been able to reach Alaska. Much of the continental United States would be in range of the second one, he said, including New York and Boston. Washington, D.C., probably would be just outside it. [Continue reading…]

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