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 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.

Update: North Korea Fires Ballistic Missile into the Sea

north-korean-missiles(Image: A comparison of North Korea’s missiles and their ranges. Though not much is known of the KN-15, it is estimated to have a range of 1500 to 2000km, roughly the same as teh No-dong missile system. Source: CSIS Missile Threat)

North Korea is acting out only a day before President Trump meets at his Mar-a-Lago Resort with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. Early on Wednesday morning, an unknown projectile was fired into the East Sea from Sinpo, North Hamgyeong Province (Yonhap). A few moments later, the Joint Chiefs of Staff in South Korea confirmed that North Korea had indeed tested a missile, though refused to specify what the projectile was; it was merely reported that the projectile was not a piece of artillery (Yonhap).Overall, the test

Overall, the test appears to be a failure, as the missile did not fly for very long. After being launched at 6:42am, the missile was tracked until 6:51am. It reached a maximum altitude of 183km and flew around 60km before splashing down in the East Sea (Yonhap; Korea Times). The missile was later identified as the KN-15–also known as the Pukguksong-2–a nuclear capable, land-based variant of the KN-14 SLBM. Unlike previous KN-15 tests, however, this test was a missile powered by liquid fuel not solid (Chicago Tribune). However the international community spins the test, North Korea will have gained some valuable information to develop yet another missile to operability, making it more difficult to counter.

Responses to the test have been, for lack of better word, curious. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson released a statement which read, “North Korea launched yet another intermediate range ballistic missile. The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment” (Secretary of State’s Remarks). Ahn Cheol-soo, a contender in the 2017 South Korean presidential race responded by highlighting the importance of national security in South Korea (Chosun Ilbo*). So far, President Trump and other world leaders have yet to respond to the test.

Politically, the test will intensify the political parlay over North Korea between President Trump and Xi Jinping during their meeting. Trump has long advocated for a larger Chinese role in solving the North Korean issue, saying in a recent interview with the Financial Times that “China will either help us, or they won’t” (Financial Times). Trump has also accused China of not using its economic leverage to perturb Pyongyang into abandoning their programs. Economically, China accounts for the majority North Korean trade, and several Chinese companies have conducted business to the tune of $8 million with North Korea (Chosun Ilbo).

China, despite strong economic ties with North Korea, has been making moves to comply with United Nations Security Council Resolutions, including the suspension of North Korean coal imports for 2017. Many saw this move as placing the ball in America’s hands (The Economist). Wednesday’s test will heighten the tensions between Xi and Trump ahead of their Flordia meeting. Other items most likely to be covered will most likely include THAAD deployment on the Korean Peninsula. THAAD is yet another issue which will be even more contentious following this test.

North Korea is behaving like a neglected child, constantly stirring trouble in order to steal the spotlight. Wednesday’s test offered the reclusive regime a way to ensure it would be at the top of the agenda for Trump and Xi.

Corrections:

April 10: Updated information of the test parameters, detailing the use of liquid fuel in the second paragraph. Added an additional source in paragraph 2.

Update: North Korean Projectile Launch

North Korea is reported to have launched servers missiles from its base in Tongchari, the home of the Sohae Satellite Launch Station.  Activity in the region has been viewed with concern by Japanese analysts (BBC). After flying 1000km, the projectiles landed in the ocean off the east coast (Joongang Ilbo*). The missiles are in defiance of several United Nations Security Council resolutions. No one has yet to respond, seeing as the story is still breaking.  Stay tuned for more information as it becomes available. South Korean outlet Yonhap News was the first to break the story.

Daily Update – February 27

South Korea

Politics – Lotte and the South Korean military have approved a land swap which would allow the government to deploy the THAAD missile defense system at the Lotte owned golf course in Seongju County.  In the swap, Lotte relinquished the golf course in exchange for government owned land east of Seoul (Yonhap).  After being greenlighted last year, THAAD has opened a contentious debate throughout the region.  China, who has constantly expressed dissent on the issue, repeated its stance.  In a daily press briefing, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Geng Shuang said China would take necessary measures to counter the deployment (NY Times).  THAAD is scheduled to deployed before June.

Korea’s leading parliamentarian, Chung Sye-kyun, in a statement commemorating the Independence Movement on March 1, highlighted the need for the country to accept the results of the Constitutional Court no matter what they decide.  In the statement, Chung said “whatever results may come, we should accept it fully and be reborn as a new Republic of Korea” (Yonhap).  In an interview with The Diplomat, Chung echoed a similar view, arguing South Korea should remain devoted to the democratic process (The Diplomat).

In a poll released Friday by Realmeter, Moon Jae-in increased his lead in the polls, reaching a 33.5% approval rating.  His lead against An Hee-jong expanded from 12.1 to 14.6 as An’s approval rating dipped 1.5% to 18.9% (Korea Times).  Reports state that An fell out of favor after saying that Park had good will in setting up the foundations with Choi Soon-sil (Korea Times).  Moon’s rise in the polls solidifies his position as a leading candidate for the upcoming election, though Korea’s political future is still up in the air.  Acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn took third place at around 10% as far-right voters solidify their support behind the parties de-facto leader (Korea Times).

Culture – According to data released by the Ministry of Justice 1 in 10 foreigners in Korea are illegal aliens.  The data shows that 211,320 foreigners–around 10.1% of the total number–are illegal aliens (Korea Times).  Though high, the percentage has been on a downward trend; in 2012 around 12% of foreigners in Korea were illegals.  Many Southern Asian immigrants come to Korea seeking a better life, though they are sometimes taken advantage of.  In 2014, 44.2% of South Koreans said they did not see migrants or migrant workers as their neighbor and an Amnesty International Report urged the South Korean government to address the problem of exploitation of migrant workers (The Diplomat).  As South Korea becomes a more diverse nation, it is imperative that the government address a wide variety of immigration issues.

(Due to the amount of political news in this update, there is no economic news.)

North Korea

Trade between the European Union and North Korea shrunk for the third year straight.  The Korea Herald, citing a Voice of America article, noted that trade between the European Union and North Korea shrunk 6.6% to $29 million in 2016 (Korea Herald).  Official documents show that annual growth of imports from North Korea to the European Union was negative 49.5% while exports to North Korea had an annual growth rate of 13.6% (European Union Trade Document).  This trend piggies on China’s decision to cease import of North Korean coal for the rest of 2017.  China’s decision will have a pretty noticeable effect on North Korea throughout the year–though this may not be noticeable to many–since North Korea exported $1.9 billion worth of coal to China last year (NPR).  2017 may be a very difficult year, economically, for North Korea.  But the country has proven resilient before, even displaying an aptitude for subverting sanctions imposed on Pyongyang.

Update: North Korean Missile Launch

aen20170212000651315_01_i(Image: Picture released on January 20, 2017 by KCNA showing a Musudan test launch from June 2016.  Source: Yonhap News Agency)

North Korea test-fired a missile on Sunday, an action meant to test President Trump’s stance on the country.  It also is a test to celebrate the birthday of Kim Jung-il.  The missile flew 500km before falling into the East Sea (Sea of Japan)[BBC].  This is the first missile test since President Trump took the oath of office and officially became President of the United States on January 20.  Currently, South Korean officials are still trying to gather information about the type of missile which was launched; evidence currently points that it most likely was a Nodong scud-type missile or a Musudan intermediate ballistic missile (IRBM)[Yonhap].  As a response, South Korea’s National Security Council convened an emergency session at 9:30am (local time).  President Trump has yet to respond.

Kim Jung-un has been constantly obstreperous in the face of mounting international pressure and sanctions, opting to continue a rapid push for a diverse set of missiles and operable nuclear weapons.  If Kim follows a path consistent with the past few years, North Korea will test many nuclear weapons before the year is out.  Will update with more details when they become available.