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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Breaking News: North Korea Missile Test

North Korea conducted a missile test on Saturday, taking off from Pukchang, South Korean media reported. The missile, supposedly a Pukguksong scud, is the same missile which was tested on the 16th, and was the second failed test this month (Yonhap*).

The test comes as saber rattling has made he situation tense. In past week, THAAD made its way to Seongju, Trump called on Korea to pay $1 billion for the system and said withdrawal from the KORUS FTA is a possibility, North Korea released a cryptic propaganda video, and, earlier today, Rex Tillerson reiterated that all options are on the table but a diplomatic solution is favorable. Korea is also in the throngs of a election cycle which may drastically shift the political leanings of the Blue House.

So far their is no statements regarding the missile test. The UN is likely to condemn the test, as Trump will. Other nations will likely join in the condemnation. China is likely to continue a push for restraint while attempting to coax Pyongyang to give up its missile and nuclear programs.

Daily Update: February 16

South Korea

Economy – I put economy first, breaking with the typical tradition of this post, because a story is currently breaking.  A South Korea court has ruled Hanjin Shipping Company, a leader in the South Korean shipping industry for decades, officially bankrupt (MarketWatch).  In August of 2016, Hanjin went into receivership and applied for court protection.  However, it was unable to get money from its creditors.  Therefore, the company will be liquidated and all assets sold off (Yonhap).  As a result of the news, many Hanjin ships were denied entry at ports for fear that payments would not be made (BBC).  The fall of Hanjin also means that most of the companies seamen are suddenly out of a job.  Some analysts have commented that the failure of Hanjin may work to bring down overcapacity in the shipping industry down to a sustainable level, arguing that a crash of another major Korean shipping company was unlikely (BBC).

91203982_2fee3fd1-012d-4f3e-80f3-aba39e4933dc(Image: Hanjin employees lobbying to save their company.  Source: BBC)

mw-ev014_hanjin_20160830232802_zh(Image: Cargo sitting on a Hanjin ship in a German port.  Source: MarketWatch)

Politics – Choi-gate has continued to claim victims throughout every aspect of life in South Korea.  This week, two different arrest warrants were issued.  On Wednesday, Special Prosecutors formally arrested Choi Kyung-hee, the ex-head of Ehwa University.  She has been charged with giving admissions and grading favors to Choi Soon-sil’s daughter (Korea Times). Last month, Choi Kyung-hee avoided arrest when her name was brought before the court.  De-facto head of Samsung, Lee Jae-yong, also had a warrant issued for his arrest when his name came up a second time in court.  Lee was arrested on the same day, charged with paying over 40 billion won to get the National Pension Service to back a controversial merger (Yonhap).  These arrests come as Park is still waiting for the Constitutional Court to make their decision on her impeachment.

Culture – South Korea is home to some of the worst air in the world.  According to the “State of Global Air 2017” report, South Korea’s population -weighted national average concentration of PM2.5–ultra-fine particles or matter of a diameter of at least 2.5 microns–was 29 micrograms in 2015, well above the OECD average of 15 micrograms (Korea Herald).  Over the past 25 years, South Korea’s PM2.5 problem has gotten worse while the OECD average has gotten better.  In 1990, the OECD average was 17 micrograms while Korea’s average was 26 micrograms (Korea Herald).  Many point to China as the culprit, but the South Korean government highlights emissions from diesel engines.  To combat this, the Environmental Ministry rolled out anti-yellow dust measures in June.  This plan did not garner the public’s interest (Korea Herald).

North Korea

North Koreans have not heard of the death of Kim Jong-nam, Kim Jung-un’s half brother.  State media has not reacted to the slew of media reports covering the news.  A source cited in the Korea Herald commented that he thought Kim Jung-un was the oldest son of Kim Jung-il (Korea Herald).  As Pyongyang looks to strengthen its hold on power, the government may suppress news of Kim Jung-nam’s death due to his close ties to China.  Despite the lack of official coverage in North Korea, some reports of Kim Jung-nam’s death have gone viral in the border region (Korea Herald).

Breaking News: UN Security Council Adopts Resolution 2321

On Wednesday, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 2321, adding more sanctions to the North Korean regime as a way to choke off the regime from its sources of hard currency. The resolution was adopted 82 days after North Korea fifth nuclear test on September 9.

The sanctions will close a major loop hole present in previous attempts to siphon off cash flow from the regime.  Coal exports – the single biggest export item and source of hard currency – are capped at 7.5 million tons even if the export is for livleyhood reasons.  This cap represents a cut of North Korean ability to make money exporting coal by 60% or around $700 million, a quarter of its exports.  The resolution also forces countries to reduce the number of North Korean officials at North Korean missions.  North Korea could also see its membership to the United Nations suspended if it continues its push for nuclear weapons.

South Korea welcomed the passing of the resolution, calling it a milestone, similar to resolution 2270 which was adopted earlier this year.  The Foreign Ministry released a statement detailing its praise for the resolution.  “The government strongly welcomes that the resolution was unianimously adopted, with the backing of China and Russia, in response to North Korea’s fifth nuclear test,” the statement read.  South Korea is set to work with United Nations memeber nations to enforce the strong round of sanctions.

The looming question, as it has been with other adopted sanctions, is the role of China in enforcing the new round.  China is North Korea’s biggest trading partner, and supplier of aid, and is normally adverse to strong sanctions on the reclusive nation; China fears collapse of North Korea may lead to an economic nightmare as refugees pour across the Tumen River seeking better opportunities, and that a unified Korea places a strong democracy right at its border.  However, China may also save face, as it has done in many situations, and enforce this round of sanctions as a way to show its opposition to the North Korean nuclear program.

Daily Update – October 25

South Korea

Politics – President Park Geun-hye continues to suffer damaging implications in the Choi Soon-sil scandal which has rocked the ending of her term.  Choi was revealed to have had access to presidential speeches before they became public as well as confidential documents, despite not holding an official position in the Park administration.  Party leaders from both sides of the aisle are calling for her to come clean on the scandal.  Even members of the Saenuri party – the party Park belongs to – have called for Park to step away from the party.  No South Korean president since Lee Myung-bak in 1987 has stayed a member of their party during their time in office.

Economy – Two South Korean electronic companies –LG and Samsung – are looking toward Africa as an expanding market.  LG was the first to tap into the African market and currently has 7 sales corporations and 2 production corporations in South Africa.  As it looks to expand its growth in Africa, LG is embarking on a Localization Strategy in which LG works with the existing technological infrastructure in African nations to develop targeted products.  It is also embarking on several CSR campaigns.  Samsung is looking to develop a similar strategy, as it opens stores in Zimbabwe and South Africa.  The two companies are looking to tap into African growth and prosperity.

Culture – (Photo) Visitors taking a picture at a statue in Yeido by the Han River.  The statue is 80% the size of the Litte Mermaid statue in Copenhagen.  Photo is from The HanKyoreh

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North Korea

North Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Han Song-ryol and Robert Gallucci, United States State Department Special Envoy on the North Korea Nuclear Issue, concluded behind the scenes talks in Malaysia.  Han called the talks exploratory, where the two delegations – there was five members from each side at the talks – discussed issues of concern as both sides are starting to prepare for a new US president.  Topics discussed were North Korea’s missile and nuclear program, which the two said they made strides on.  South Korea demurred the talks, saying they will continue to enforce strong sanctions with the US if North Korean behavior continued to be provocative.

Chinese residents in the border area are working night shifts to ensure a barbed wire fence is erected quickly to prevent a flood of immigration from North Korea.  Signs in the region have also been erected warning the residents of a 500 RMB fine for assisting defectors.  This rise in activity comes as the government warns about, and hopes to protect against, a possible rise in “livelihood” defectors as living conditions in North Korea are worsening due to the flood from earlier this year.  Many fear an uptick in violence if there is a rise in defectors, which is another motivating factor of residents working on the fence.  (The photo below is from Daily NK depicting a signs in Kaishan Village.  The first warns of the fine, the second warns people to give their possessions quickly if a North Korean comes to rob them.  Pictures are taken from this DailyNK article.)

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Nuclear Update

The world has sprung into action following the nuclear test.  Japan has convened its National Security Council in response to the test.  South Korea is also calling its National Security Council to meet on Friday (South Korean time).  Across the world, the White House has acknowledged the seismic activity in North Korea and is looking into the possibility of a North Korean nuclear test.  Chinese state media also posted a picture of students who were evacuated during the test (will post analysis with a citation to this tomorrow when there is more on the test).  Stay tuned for more updates as they become known.

Edit at 11:30pm (12:30pm Friday Korean Time) :  Japan has come to the conclusion that the earthquake was in fact from a nuclear test.  The world is wondering how it came to such a conclusion.  However, Japan has lobbied a protest with the North Koreans for the test.  South Korean president Park Geun-hae has called United States president Barak Obama to discuss the nuclear test.  So far North Korea has not acknowledged the test and its next news broadcast is scheduled for 5pm local time.

Possible Nuclear Test in North Korea

There appears to have been a nuclear test in NK! Early reports are of a 5.1 magnitude artificial earthquake at Pyunggyeri, the site of the four previous tests.  Will update with more information when it is available.
Edit: South Korean government official says high chance North Korea conducted a nuclear test.  Today is the anniversary of the creation of North Korea, which was officially established by Kim Il-sung on this day in 1948.