With President Trump essentially calling him out in front of the UN earlier this week, and the sanction noose tightening even more so, it was only a matter of time before the world heard from Kim Jong Un. In a recalcitrant personal statement released Thursday, Kim resorted to a creative blend of name calling. He referred to Trump as a ‘mentally deranged US dotard’ and claimed he was greatly insulted by the president’s speech to the UN General Assembly. Responding to Trump’s promise to ‘totally destroy’ North Korea should it launch a nuclear missile at the US, Kim vowed to take the ‘highest level of hard-line countermeasure in history.’
Not long after Kim’s statement, North Korea’s foreign minister Ri Yong-ho delivered prepared remarks from his hotel in New York City. He hinted that North Korea might possibly conduct the ‘biggest ever hydrogen bomb test in the Pacific.’ It is not likely that the North has perfected a hydrogen device yet. Even if North Korea had a hydrogen weapon in its possession staging an atmospheric nuclear test is far beyond that nation’s current and future projected capabilities. The threat itself, though, remains significant as it marks an escalation in the current deadlock with the United States. By issuing a personal statement in his own name, Kim Jong Un transformed the crisis into an affair of honor between himself and President Trump.
He has now staked his reputation on confronting Trump and the United States, making Kim more unlikely to back down. Kim will probably now use the escalating rhetoric as reason to conduct more ballistic missile and nuclear tests. These will be seen by the US as proof of the continued progress of the North’s nuclear and missile programs. Further, additional tests at this point will portray Pyongyang as being indifferent to the economic and diplomatic penalties that have been placed on North Korea. That is where the true danger is right now. If sanctions and diplomatic pressure are not working effectively, it only brings the military option closer to being put in play.
This is brinkmanship combined with the cult of personality surrounding the Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Nothing good can come of this. Right now, the chances of a peaceful resolution to the North Korean crisis are just below fifty percent and dropping.
North Korea’s sixth nuclear test came earlier on Sunday and it was the most powerful device yet tested. Twenty four hours earlier, Kim Jong Un was boasting to the world that his nation now possessed a hydrogen bomb that can be fitted atop an ICBM. Whether or not it was a hydrogen device that was tested is practically a moot point at this time. Earlier in the summer, estimates making the rounds in some defense and foreign policy circles concluded that North Korea would have a hydrogen device within six to eighteen months. For myself, and many of my colleagues, this was a realistic timeframe given what was known about the North’s nuclear program. They probably do not have a hydrogen device that can be mounted on an ICBM yet either. The process of miniaturizing a device in order to fit on an ICBM is a complex, time consuming process. Kim’s legion of scientists and nuclear experts likely aren’t there yet.
But they will get there eventually unless something is done soon.
*Author’s note: Cutting this post short to try and enjoy a bit of the holiday. I’ll be back posting on Tuesday. I hope all of you are having a nice Labor Day weekend.*
Thus far, the watchword for 2016 is ‘be prepared for anything.’ The first week of the new year has been volatile to say the very least. From the Arabian Peninsula to East Asia, diplomatic, nuclear and economic crises have come to life and the aftershocks of these events have been felt around the world. It remains to be seen whether this pattern turns out to be an aberration or something more consistent. What is certain is the fact that 2016 has started with a bang and the world is warily waiting for what might happen next.
In the Middle East, the execution of Sheik Nimr al-Nimr has touched off a wave of protests and diplomatic maneuvering. Rioters in Tehran stormed and set fire to the Saudi Arabian embassy. The Saudis responded by severing diplomatic ties with Iran and within 24 hours, the Gulf States and Sudan had followed suit to varying degrees. As if this were not bad enough, on 7 January, 2016 Iran accused Saudi Arabia of intentionally striking its embassy in Yemen with warplanes. The Saudis rejected the claim and as of yet the Iranians have not provided any proof to support its accusation. The events that are playing out at the moment are part of a much bigger drama between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the region. Tensions will continue to rise this year and the possibility of open conflict between the two nations and their allies will also increase.
Then there are the happenings in East Asia. Earlier this week, Pyongyang claimed that North Korea had successful tested a thermonuclear device. Within hours, scientific experts were disputing the claim. Without delving into detailed explanations, it is safe to assume that North Korea did not test a thermonuclear (hydrogen) bomb. No one is disputing that a nuclear weapon was tested, though. From all indications there was indeed an underground test. This morning, three days after the test, North Korea has released video of a supposedly new SLBM (Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile) test. South Korean media outlets have pointed out that the footage of the ‘new’ test appear very similar to a North Korean missile test from 2014.
In response to the test, the US has warned China that its efforts to keep North Korea on a leash have failed. It is apparent that the ‘Soft Approach’ to North Korea is not working and a new approach has to be considered. As far back as the 1990s, the US and then China opted for a softer approach for contending with North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and its overall animosity. These efforts have resulted in nothing substantial. The North has nuclear weapons, it is continuing nuclear testing, and expanding its ballistic missile capabilities as well. The failure of incentives and tolerance by China and the US is the primary reason that Pyongyang is a nuclear power.
Finally, there is China. This past week saw China’s stock market and currency go off the rails for the second time in six months. The circuit breaker mechanisms put in place to limit market sell-offs halted trading twice this week and actually intensified sell-offs. The situation was so damaging that the government has decided to do away with the circuit breaker. The Chinese drop was felt around the world as global indexes reacted negatively to the reality that China’s economy is faltering. The situation appears to 2008 when the US economic slump led to consequences far beyond its borders.