After a nearly three-week long saga which included miscommunication on the part of the White House and the Pentagon, unfulfilled assurances by a US president, and an admiral in the hot seat, the USS Carl Vinson and her escorts have arrived in the Sea of Japan. Better late than never, I suppose. The carrier group’s appearance coincided with North Korea’s latest test-firing of a ballistic missile. The missile malfunctioned shortly after launch, marking the fourth consecutive test failure for North Korea. Despite the failure, the test was still a defiant act by Pyongyang given that North Korean ballistic missile test firings are banned by the UN.
Vinson and her escorts teamed up with South Korean naval units for a series of workups before the strike group heads farther north today or tomorrow morning following an underway replenishment. There is some speculation and concern that another North Korean test will come on Monday, 1 May as it is May Day. The holiday is officially observed by North Korea and its symbolic significance would provide the perfect backdrop for a ballistic missile test launch, or perhaps a nuclear test. Threats and bluster from Kim Jong Un have followed the Carl Vinson on her circuitous journey to the Sea of Japan. Now, having a US aircraft carrier operating in close proximity to its shores holds the potential of being an irresistible temptation for Un.
On the surface, the US show of force in the waters off of Korea is provocative and suggests the arrival of an offensive military option for Washington. Realistically, however, the Carl Vinson strike group is not indispensable to any offensive military action the US might contemplate. Airstrikes against North Korean missiles and nuclear facilities can be launched from US airbases in Japan and on Guam using mainly USAF assets. Having a carrier present in the Sea of Japan certainly provides more avenues for US planners, but it is not essential.
Geopolitically speaking, on the other hand, having Vinson in the Sea of Japan is invaluable for the United States. The ship is a forthright representation of American firepower, as well as a highly visible signature of US resolve and commitment to its allies in the Western Pacific. Kim Jong Un cannot simply ignore it. The hope is that the Carl Vinson’s appearance will force him to rethink his strategy and deter him from taking ill-considered action that could worsen the crisis.
Judging by how Kim Jong Un has behaved over the last two months though, hoping for that could be pointless at this stage of the game.
As the political firestorm over President Trump’s executive action concerning immigration slowly subsides, signs of the first potential foreign policy challenge for the Trump administration are cropping up in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Since his inauguration on 20 January, Trump has been primarily occupied with domestic issues, with the exception of a visit by the UK Prime Minister and a handful of conversations with important allies and other global leaders. Events in Iran on Sunday, the Ukraine over the past 48 hours, and an incident off the coast of Yemen yesterday indicate that soon the Trump administration’s foreign policy team will be going into action.
Yesterday, a Saudi Al Madinah class frigate was attacked in the Red Sea off the coast of Yemen by three suicide boats manned by Houthi rebels. One of the boats struck the stern of the Saudi frigate causing a large explosion and subsequent fire. Two sailors were killed and three wounded. Damage to the ship appears to be limited though and it is in no danger of sinking. The attack comes after a period of quiet following attacks by Iranian-backed Houthis against a UAE logistics ship, and US warships in October, 2016. In those attacks, Houthi rebels fired land-based anti-ship missiles against the ships on separate occasions. The missiles targeting US ships were defeated by countermeasures, while the UAE ship suffered a hit and a large amount of damage. The attack on the Saudi warship could be a thinly veiled message by the Houthi backers in Tehran concerning the talks over the weekend between President Trump and Saudi King Salman.
On Sunday, Iran test-fired a medium-range ballistic missile in violation of UN Resolution 2231, a resolution calling on Iran not to conduct such tests. The test was a failure, with the missile exploding 600 miles away from its launch site. The timing of the test is suspicious as well, coming shortly after the US-Saudi leadership discussion mentioned above. The White House has called the test irresponsible and a violation of Resolution 2231. The UN Security Council is expected to meet either tonight or tomorrow on the matter, though no action is expected.
In Ukraine, fighting has renewed in the eastern section of the country between government troops and Russian-backed separatist forces. Artillery and rocket fire hit residential areas in the government-held town of Avdiivka. Between Sunday and Monday nights, the number of ceasefire violations spiked and Ukrainian forces suffered casualties, signaling an escalation in the fighting. The situation has caused Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to cut his working trip to Germany, where he met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Again, timing is a factor to consider here. The renewed attacks came not long after Vladimir Putin and President Trump had their first discussion over the weekend. Putin was possibly expecting Trump to remove the heavy economic US sanctions that were imposed on Russia by the Obama administration. Since that did not come about, the new activity in Ukraine could be his own response to the United States.
If I were a gambling man I’d say there is probably a 60% chance of North Korea testing a long range missile over the next three days. After all, it is inaugural weekend here in the United States and our new president has already called out Kim Jong Un, a leader with a very short temper and frail ego. After Un’s announcement that North Korea was close to testing an ICBM, President-elect Donald Trump tweeted that it “won’t happen.” Now, on the eve of the inauguration it’s safe to assume Un will at least try to make Trump eat his words. Over the past 36 hours a number of reports have materialized that suggest North Korea is making preparations for a test firing. Some experts have suggested publicly that the claim about an ICBM is credible given the progress the nation has made on the nuclear front in recent years.
I am not going to agree with or contest their conclusions, however, I will simply state that mine are somewhat different.
A potential North Korean test only serves to highlight the fact that the world is entering a new geo-political era of sorts. Donald Trump’s foreign policy will be markedly different from Barak Obama’s. We’ve seen glimmers of this since November 8th but tomorrow after Trump takes the oath of office it becomes real.
Say what you will about Kim Jong Un but he certainly has a flare for the dramatic. As US and ROK forces begin their annual Ulchi-Freedom Guardian military exercises on the southern half of the Korean peninsula and the Japanese, Chinese, and South Korean foreign ministers begin meetings in Tokyo, North Korea chooses today to test fire a sub-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). A KN-11 missile was launched from the waters off the nation’s east coast by a North Korean submarine. It flew east for roughly 500 miles before coming down in the Sea of Japan. South Korean officials were quick to call the action an ‘armed protest’ and the label is an accurate one. North Korea is prohibited by the UN from using any ballistic missile or nuclear technology. The UN ban has not deterred North Korea from conducting a series of test firings in recent months or moving forward with preparations for yet another test of a nuclear device. Unofficial US and Japanese intelligence estimates suggest a nuclear test will take place sometime within the next 30 days.
The test was North Korea’s most successful SLBM to date and raises concerns among US, Japanese and South Korean allies. Although North Korea’s submarines are obsolete and noisy by modern day standards, in the event of a conflict, SLBM capable subs would pose a real danger to civilian and military targets in South Korea and Japan. This test lends additional justification to the South Korean-US agreement to deploy the THAAD system to the peninsula.
With Ulchi-Freedom Guardian underway additional North Korean missile tests and saber-rattling should be expected. Although Kim Jong Un’s regime has proven to be unpredictable and irrational, it responds to US and ROK military exercises in a very uniform manner.
To the casual observer, North Korea must appear to have an unlimited supply of ballistic missiles and rocket fuel. For the third time in a month, North Korea has conducted a ballistic missile test. This time it was with a pair of No Dong IRBMs. The first one exploded shortly after launch while the second missile landed in the Sea of Japan roughly 150 miles west of the Japanese coast inside of Japan’s exclusive economic zone. In Tokyo, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called it an “unforgivable act of aggression that represents a grave threat to the security of Japan.”
On 19 July, 2016 North Korea test fired three SCUD type shorter range ballistic missiles and earlier in the month a sub-launched ballistic missile was test fired but failed early on in flight. North Korea’s missile tests generally come as a counteraction to military or diplomatic moves by the United States, South Korea or Japan that Pyongyang regards as distasteful. The July tests were presumably made in response to South Korea’s decision to deploy the US THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Air Defense) system.
The most recent test firings come a month after Kim Jong Un was placed on a list of ‘sanctioned individuals’ by the US. North Korea stated that the action ‘crossed a red line’ and was essentially a declaration of war.
The latest posturing by North Korea leads us to wonder about the internal pressures confronting the Kim Jong Un regime. The missile tests, coupled with the increasing bellicose tone coming from Pyongyang may suggest that Jong Un fears his hold on power is becoming less secure. Lashing out against the United States and other enemies in the region to divert domestic attention away from the deteriorating situation inside of the DPRK has been a tried and true gimmick for North Korean leadership for decades. How effective it is at the present time cannot be gauged accurately.
Suffice to say, the situation in North Korea requires close observation in the coming weeks. Between North Korea and China’s latest moves with regards to the South China Sea, the Western Pacific is becoming a very tense place.