A Leap With Limitations: North Korea’s November 29 Missile Launch

On November 29, North Korea launched a missile from Pyongsong, South Pyongan Province. After flying to an altitude of 2,800 miles, the missile splashed down in Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone (CNN; USA Today). The test broke a hiatus that lasted over two months, escalating tensions on the peninsula in the months leading up to the Olympic Games in South Korea. Not only was the test a break in the brief respite in testing, it marked a massive improvement in North Korea’s arsenal. Several key questions arise from the test. 1) What capabilities does the new missile add to North Korea’s program? And should we be scared of those new abilities? 2) How does the test alter the way we respond to North Korean provocations? 3) Are we inching closer and closer to a war on the peninsula?

How Does the New Missile Enhance Pyongyang’s Abilities?

The missile tested on November 29 was a Hwangsong-15 type Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, the largest and longest reaching missile in North Korea’s arsenal. David Wright, co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, estimated that the missile, flown on a more standard trajectory, has an estimated range of 13,000km (8,100 miles)[Union of Concerned Scientists]. Analysts have cautioned, however, that the missile was most likely tested with a reduced payload to exaggerate its overall capabilities. Some estimates place the range of the operational missile, carrying a 500kg payload, to be around 8,300km (38 North).

Despite its range, some other key aspects of the missile differentiate it from the rest of North Korea’s arsenal. Compared to the Hwangsong-14, the ICBM North Korea tested in July, the Hwasong-15 is bigger, has more engines, and features a guidance system which is simpler and more effective than previous variations on other North Korean missiles (38North). Another key aspect of the missile is the Hwasong-15’s BMD defenses. The Hwasong-15 has the capability to carry a wide variety of simple decoys, pieces used to fool interceptors into hitting the wrong target. Several experts agree that the current state of American Ballistic Missile Defense, the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense System or GMD, is not capable enough to be relied on in the event that an operational Hwasong-15 is launched against the country (The National Interest). Technologically, the missile not only is a step up for Pyongyang, it showcases that North Korea has mastered a wide variety of technological aspects for their ICBM program, providing them with a stronger ability to strike the United States mainland and get through the web of American missile defense. It’s a scary leap forward indeed.

The Hwasong-15 is the technological leap forward the international community has been fearing for some time. Not only does the missile appear more accurate and reliable than other North Korean missiles, it also has the theoretical ability to carry a nuclear warhead to the United States mainland, even if the operational length of the missile is shorter than test analysis shows. North Korea may now turn its focus to improving the Hwasong-15 as well as shrinking its nuclear weapons to fulfill its penultimate goal: having the ability to strike the United States mainland with a reliable nuclear-tipped ICBM.

Running out of Options: How Do We Respond in the Age of the ICBM?

International reactions to Pyongyang’s test were strong, yet not strong enough to provoke. Marked with shows of strength and tough diplomacy, reactions have centered on one goal: showcasing strong forces and alliances as a method of deterrence. However strong they were, the responses also needed an element of tempered diplomatic maneuvering to avoid exacerbating the situation.

While moving through the typical South Korean bureaucratic channels–Moon Jae-in called an emergency meeting of the National Security Council as the military worked to assess and respond to the test–Seoul launched a precision strike missile within 6 minutes of the North Korean test. Seoul’s response is striking for many reasons. South Korea had some intelligence pointing to a possible launch; it involved cooperation between the Army, Air Force, and Navy; and it “offer[ed] potent operational evidence of parts of its Kill Chain preemptive strike system and Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation (KMPR) plan,” two parts of South Korea’s defense strategy (The Diplomat). Moon Jae-in also worked the diplomatic reams of the crisis. In a phone call with President Trump, the two agreed to discuss further measures to punish North Korea for the test (Reuters).

While South Korea’s response was one of measured strength and cooperative diplomacy, the United States took a more hawkish stance. American Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, at an emergency meeting of the Security Council, called on nations to isolate Pyongyang by cutting all ties with North Korea, while also arguing that the test brings the peninsula closer to war (TIME). Currently, 24 nations have relations with North Korea and there are 47 North Korean diplomatic missions scattered throughout the world (CNN). However, many nations have expelled North Korean diplomats for a slew of reasons. Following its September nuclear test, 6 nations–Spain, Kuwait, Peru, Mexico, Egypt, and the Philippines–sent North Korean diplomats packing while Uganda cut all military ties in May of 2016 (Reuters). Malaysia also expelled its North Korean Ambassador following the assassination of Kim Jung-nam earlier this year (The Guardian). As North Korea continues to push for more advanced weapons and eliminates perceived threats to Kim Jung-un by any means, more nations may choose to cut ties with North Korea, though some will likely stay to act as mitigators between North Korea and the outside world.

41596479_401(Image Source: The DW)

President Trump, who has been a vocal critic of Kim Jung-un since ascending to the White House, has also lashed his teeth following the test. On Twitter, Trump said “the situation will be handled,” and called for tougher sanctions on the regime (Twitter). Outside of calling for political actions, Trump has lashed out at Pyongyang’s leader, calling Kim Jung-un a slew of names including “Little Rocket Man” (Twitter), and “Sick Puppy” (Politico). Even before his presidency, Trump has been very vocal, and often times bellicose, in criticising the North Korean regime (CNN). Despite the vitriolic rhetoric by Trump, he has hinted at the possibility of meeting with Kim Jung-un, but has said the meeting would have to happen under the right circumstances (BBC).

China, North Korea’s greatest ally in the world, demurred the test, expressing “grave concern and opposition” (CNBC). Despite having strong reservations about the nuclear and missile program, China still stands by North Korea. As American and South Korean forces conducted annual drills, China’s Air Force flew on routes and in areas it has never flown over the East and Yellow Seas, a warning to Trump against provoking Pyongyang (Forbes). The drills highlight a grave possibility if hostilities resume: China may come to the aid of North Korea. As if the possibility of Chinese intervention in a resumed Korean conflict weren’t enough to raise hairs, a Chinese provincial newspaper ran a full-page advisory giving advice to citizens called “General Knowledge about Nuclear Weapons and Protection.” The advisory ran cartoons about how to act in a nuclear attack, eventually forcing the paper to calm citizens worries (Washington Post).

Global reaction to the test was measured not in its strength or creativity in calls to action. Rather, the reactions and policy proposals following Pyongyang’s test showcased just how divided the world is on the issue. Conflicting issues will continue to mire any chance of success in bringing North Korea to the discussion table.

The North Korean security issue is a complex one, requiring a combination of hard-line isolation and more tactful diplomacy to resolve. However, there seems to be no clear path forward; diplomatic actions are likely to be cheated by Pyongyang and more aggressive actions will exacerbate tensions. The most effective actions, however, are the ones taken in unison. Nations who have a major stake in the situation–America, Russia, China, South Korea, and Japan to name a few–need to unify in a detailed approach leveling carrots and sticks toward Pyongyang. Without a clear, unified path forward, North Korea will continue to test as a way to split world powers and maintain a system of global order which favors continuing nuclear and ballistic missile tests as a way for North Korea to survive and get what it desires.

Are we Inching Closer to the Edge?: The Possibility of War on the Peninsula

Following every new advancement in Pyongyang’s capabilities, the world ponders the effects of resumed conflict on the peninsula, and following this test was no different. Barry Posen, an MIT political science professor, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times speculating the potential costs of a war on the Korean Peninsula (New York Times). American Senator Tammy Duckworth commented that the majority of the American public doesn’t know exactly how close to war the situation really is (Vox).

North Korea, for its part, has not been working to squash such fears. After a rhetorical tit-for-tat, a North Korean spokesman was quoted as saying that “these confrontational warmongering remarks cannot be interpreted in any other way but as a warning to us to be prepared for a war on the Korean Peninsula,” (Newsweek). An article in the Korean Central News Agency strongly demurred the recent actions by the Americans, calling the outbreak of war “an established fact” (KCNA).[1] Such comments have done nothing but strengthened the idea that war is inevitable, but is it really?

Despite the highly tense rhetoric, war is still far from an established fact. Barry Posden, in The New York Times, writes that “the complexity, risks and costs of a military strike against North Korea are too high.” He reaches this conclusion by citing that America would have to make several unobvious maneuvers, a task with a high chance of failure. Also, North Korea would, despite the success of a preemptive attack, have a chance to respond, and “the detonation of even a small number of nuclear weapons in North Korea would produce hellish results” (New York Times).

Another key reason war is further from resumption is the rationality behind North Korea’s continued pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles (Wall Street Journal). Kim Jung-un views the program as a way to ensure his security as a global leader and understands that war would most likely lead to his unseating. Those around him, though they are unable to rein in Kim, also face a scenario of loss of power if hostilities resume.[2]

As the situation stands today, we are no closer to war than we were a few days or months ago. The most realistic chance of war comes from the high likelihood of a miscalculation by either Trump or Kim in either rhetoric or action. Maintenance of the status-quo along with tough sanctions and pressure, though a flawed and possibly resultless strategy, continues to be the best of the worst case on the peninsula. It is only through a mix of pressure and creative diplomacy, backed by the entire international community, presents the greatest opportunity to bring Pyongyang to the negotiating table, though it still does not guarantee that negotiation will lead Pyongyang to a freeze.

Notes:

[1] Source is from North Korean state media and therefore will not be linked to in this post. However, the cited Newsweek, article offers a good analysis of North Korea’s recent rhetoric, including the KCNA article.

[2] David Rothkopf, a senior fellow at SIAS, offers more insight into why a war on the peninsula is not as close as the media makes it seem. His basic framework is similar to the one I attempted to create, though his wonderful piece in the Chicago Tribune hones in on the possibilities on the Korean peninsula in more focused and detail tone than my own. I highly recommend his piece: David Rothkopf, “Here’s how the North Korea nuclear standoff will end,” Chicago Tribune, December 7, 2017. (This is today’s Daily Reading.)

Corrections:

12/8: A previous version of this article said that the precision test was performed after Moon Jae-in called a meeting of the National Security Council, when in fact the two happened fairly close to each other.

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Daily Update: November 28

South Korea

Politics: President Park’s trial resumed after a 42-day hiatus following her entire legal team resigning due to the perceived politicization of the proceedings. The accused, however, refused to show up for the resumption of her trail, leading the lead judge to threaten to try Park in absentia, saying that it will be difficult to force her to show up due to her status as ex-president (Choson Ilbo). After refusing to show for the second day, the presiding judge, Honorable Kim Se-yoon, followed through on his threats, announcing that the rest of the trail would continue in her absence (HanKyoreh). Park has continually protested the proceedings and her absence hinders her right to self-defense.

Moon Jae-in has also been making some political moves. On November 26, Moon promoted Han Byung-do, a political affairs secretary, to the position of Senior Secretary for Political Affairs, a position opened by the departure of Jun Byung-hun who is in the midst of a bribery investigation (Yonhap). On the appointment, Presidential Spokesman Park Soo-hyun said, “Han is considered to be fit for communications with the National Assembly considering his experience as a lawmaker” (Korea Times). Han said that he “feel[s] a heavy responsibility” in taking the job (Yonhap). Other moves by Moon include calling for swift reform to regulations to promote growth (Yonhap) and a pledge to use all his paid vacation as a way to showcase work-life balance and change the work culture in Korea (Korea Times).

Culture: Including this simply because she is my favorite solo singer: Taeyon, a member of the girl group “Girl’s Generation,” was involved in a multi-car accident, though she appears to be resting at her home. SM Entertainment has promised to do its best in resolving the issue (Korea Herald). All others involved in the accident were sent to the hospital with minor injuries (Yonhap).

Finally, plastic surgery is a common commodity in South Korea, drawing some tourists from all over the world. However, there is one place where plastic surgery ads will start to vanish: the subway. Seoul Metro will ban its advertising agencies from buying plastic surgery ads, eliminating plastic surgery ads from metro stations by 2022 (Korea Times). Seoul Metro also has plans to not renew contracts for plastic surgery ads when they expire (Choson Ilbo).

North Korea

North Korea fired another ballistic missile test at dawn on November 29. The missile flew 960km, reached an altitude of 4500km, and flew for 53 minutes before crashing into the sea off the coast of Japan (Korea Times). The launch was higher than any previous launch by North Korea.

Reactions to the test have been more in line with previous tests. President Moon Jae-in convened the Security Council to discuss the situation and said, he “strongly condemn North Korea for staging such reckless provocations” (Yonhap). President Trump remained more muted than in the past, simply saying that North Korea is an issue that will be addressed by the administration while leaving out details as to how he plans to address Pyongyang (NY Times). Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council (Ashia Shimbun). The leaders have all contacted each other to discuss the situation as well. Currently, the response to the test is going through the typical reams of response, though a harsher response than normal may be in the works as the missile tested does have the theoretical ability to reach all of the United States.

One state taking the threat from North Korea seriously is Hawaii. In an effort to ensure the population of Hawaii is prepared, the state is adding a Cold War-era warning siren to its monthly attention alert tests. The alarm will sound for 50 seconds, take a brief pause, and then resume for another 50 seconds. Starting on December 1, the alarm will sound on the first business day of each month (Honolulu Star Advisor). The last time such sirens were used was around 1980 to counter the Russian threat of the Cold War. Hawaii is the first American state to take such drastic measures to ensure preparedness against the North Korean threat.

Read of the Day:

Coping with the inevitability of death is a key aspect of life. Many turn to religion, science, or a combination of both to explain what happens to our spirits and bodies when the lights go out. For North Koreans, however, theories surrounding death have evolved in a couple of interesting ways. The first is that citizens of North Korea are taught that they belong to a collective, immortal group; the party, leader, and people all share a common destiny and are therefore immortal. Second, in North Korea, political life is more important than physical life. Acts for the leaders will earn a person political immortality while subversive acts will cut a person’s political life short, even if they are still alive. Defector Park Ui-song takes on North Korea’s interesting culture surrounding death in a wonderful piece for NK News: Park Ui-song, “Ask a North Korean: Do People Talk About Life After Death in the DPRK?” NK News, November 16, 2017.

Breaking News: North Korea Tests Another Missile

At dawn on November 29, Korean time, North Korea launched another ballistic missile, according to the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Early analysis points to the possibility that the missile was an ICBM, with a launch altitude of 4500km and a distance of 960km (Yonhap). This is North Korea’s first test in over two months.

Though frightening, the fact that North Korea tested an ICBM should not come as a surprise. With a widening arsenal of ballistic missiles, North Korea must work to ensure that its long-range missiles are capable of launch. In fact, it wouldn’t be too much to say that a majority of North Korea’s capabilities testing–that is not to say a missile as a response to an action the regime perceives as hostile–will most likely be of some aspect of an ICBM moving forward.

More to come in today’s Daily Update.

Corrections

November 28, 2017: A previous rendition of this post misstated the stats of the missile launch, saying that the missile flew 4500km at an altitude of 960km. The missile, in fact, flew 960km at an altitude of 4500km.

Daily Update: South Korean Round-up

Here are some big stories coming out of South Korea:

The End of Ballon Diplomacy

According to a Cheong Wa-dae official, President Moon Jae-in has asked South Koreans to stop sending anti-North Korean leaflets across the border. In the wake of the president’s remarks, Beak Tai-hyun noted that the leaflets cause tension between the two Koreas, but also noted the complexity in dealing with the subject (Yonhap). Ballon diplomacy embrangles the two Koreas as each constantly drops leaflets to satirize the other’s culture, leaders, and policies. The move by Moon came after the July 4th ICBM test, as he sought legal methods to block the leaflets from being sent into Pyongyang, fearing they may cause a small clash which could escalate into full-out war (HanKyoreh).

Leaflets are a constant fixture of inter-Korean relations. Pyongyang constantly sends leaflets into Seoul, most propaganda mocking international leadership. Recently, graphic depictions of President Trump were found in Seoul, as were leaflets demurring America’s policy toward the Korean peninsula (NK News; Korea Expose; NK News). South Koreans, led mainly by defector-activists, also send leaflets the other way. In August, activists sent trash and leaflets into North Korea to educate North Koreans about the outside world (NY Post). Leaflets have been a constant fixture of inter-Korean relations for years, and, despite Moon’s efforts to eliminate them from the equation, activists will always find ways to attempt to influence the minds of North Koreans. “The quickest way to bring down the regime is to change people’s minds,” said Park Sang-hak, a defector who runs the Fighters for a Free North Korea (NY Post).

The change comes at a time when tensions run high. Pyongyang constantly engages in piquant behaviour–missile launches, nuclear tests–with equally provocative responses from American President Donald Trump. Ballons being launched into North Korea, though with the good intention of educating North Koreans on the outside world, may inadvertently cause an international incident. It is with good intentions that Moon has embarked on this journey, but it may prove fruitless as activists will constantly look for ways to engage North Koreans with foreign media.

Park Guen-hye

In May, South Korea’s former president Park Geun-hye’s trail in the corruption case which expelled her from power started (BBC). Others who have stood trail include Choi Soon-sil, Park’s friend and confidant, and Lee Jae-young. Park’s trail is a marathon, containing over 100 witnesses and a charge sheet of over 120,000 pages.

On October 13, South Korean courts decided to extend the sentence of Park by six months, citing the possibility that evidence in the case may be destroyed (Channel News Asia). The move sparked outrage in Park and her lawyers. In her first public appearance, Park demurred the case as “political revenge,” while claiming her treatment was politically motivated (The Guardian). Park’s lawyers all resigned en masse to protest the trail which they see as biased against their client (VOA). Park’s scandal is likely to remain in the headlines for a while, as Park staunchly denies and fights the charges against her.

Donald Trump in Seoul

Finally, the big upcoming story is President Trump’s visit to South Korea.[1] During his trip, Trump is likely to address the North Korean crisis, saying that time is running out to solve the issue. Many South Korean leaders also wish for Trump to address what the Korean media has dubbed “Korea passing,” the sidelining of South Korea in addressing the crisis (CNBC). The biggest key of his trip will be showcasing a united front against the North Korean threat which includes Seoul. Other topics will include trade, nuclear weapons, and the American commitment to the region (USA Today).

A missing feature of Trump’s visit is a trip to the DMZ, which administration officials have called cliche (Financial Times). The trip, according to officials, was too short to include a visit to the border, a visit which has been a key aspect of past administrations; Obama, Bush, Clinton, and Regan have visited the DMZ dressed in a bomber jacket. Though there are many issues which will dictate the tone of his trip to Korea, and throughout Asia in general, at least the world can rest knowing Trump will not have the opportunity to cause an incident with some incendiary remarks at the DMZ.

These are just some of the stories coming out of South Korea in the past few months, and they all will be watched closely by this blog. Stay tuned for more information as the headlines are made.

Notes

[1] Donald Trump will also be visiting several other Asian countries, including Vietnam, Japan, China, and the Phillipeans.

Breaking News: Artifical Earthquake in North Korea

On Sunday, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck North Korea. It’s point of origin was Pyunggye-ri, North Korea’s nuclear test site, raising fears that North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test. South Korean military is monitoring the situation, as the rest of the world waits for more data surrounding the quake.

More to come.

Breaking News: Missiles Again

North Korea has launched another missile today, its second one this week. Japan’s NHK broke news of the launch, and told its citizens to be safe. The missile reportedly flew over Japan, and is most likely a show of strength by Pyongyang. (Yonhap Reporting). I am following the test and will add it to my second missile test analysis post.

Breaking News: A New Set of Launches

North Korea reportedly launched several missiles from Gangwando Province into the East Sea. The launch comes as South Korea and the United States are engaging in military drills on the peninsula, a time always fraught with high tensions and tough rhetoric.

Trump has yet to respond to the launch. Instead, the American president is currently at Camp David, monitoring Hurricane Harvey as it makes landfall in Texas. (In other news, I’ve been a little obsessed with Harvey as my hometown will be hit by parts of the storm.)

I will work on an update to this test and will have my ICBM analysis up soon. Thank you all for being patient.