Yesterday’s successful test launch of an ICBM has changed the US-North Korean equation permanently. Pyongyang is no longer an abstract threat to the security and wellbeing of the United States. It now possesses a missile capable of reaching targets as far away as Alaska and Hawaii. Pyongyang televisions earlier boasting today about a missile able to reach anywhere in the world is nothing more than bluster. However, given what has taken place in the last twenty-four hours it will simply be a matter of time before North Korea fields an ICBM with the range to reach the US west coast and beyond. Unless, of course, the United States can prevent it through diplomatic or military means.
The key question at the moment is: what will the US response entail? The US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, has requested an emergency Security Council meeting. It will likely be held Wednesday afternoon at the earliest. What will emerge from the meeting remains to be seen, but the Trump administration appears likely to try a diplomatic approach to North Korea before any other action is contemplated. Earlier today, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson promised that the US will never accept a nuclear-armed North Korea.
So, North Korea is the latest member to join the ICBM club. Tonight, a celebratory mood likely permeates the offices of Kim Jong Un. In his mind, he has pulled off a coup of historic proportions. Unfortunately for Jong Un and the nation he leads, his reality is skewered. The actions he is taking will not safeguard his nation from future US military action, as he hopes. In fact, yesterday’s test makes US military action more feasible. Jong Un is blissfully unaware, and it could very well be this ignorance that pushes the region into a devastating war sometime in the next three to four months.
*Authors note: With today being a holiday here in the US, I’ve kept this post is short. There is much more to talk about concerning North Korea so there will be more posts through the rest of the week*
This afternoon’s test of a Ground Based Interceptor (GBI) missile against an ICBM-type target was successful. The Pentagon has confirmed that the mock warhead was destroyed. GBI is a land based missile, and the backbone of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system that has been developed to defend the United States against a limited ICBM attack. The GBI was launched from a silo at Vandenberg AFB in California and intercepted its target over the Pacific Ocean. The system has had limited amounts of success in the past. Roughly half of the intercept tests held up until now have failed. Today’s test, which had been planned for a year, is the first time a GBI has gone up against a close simulation of the type of target missile it is designed to kill.
The timing of the test is every bit as relevant as the results. With tension increasing over North Korea’s push to develop its own ICBM capability, today’s test at Vandenberg is a direct message to Kim Jong Un. Not only does the US possess the ability to turn North Korea into the world’s largest sheet of glass in the event of a North Korean launch, there is no guarantee that any future North Korea’s missile design can penetrate the defenses provided by Ground-based Midcourse Defense. The system does not yet guarantee a 100% chance of intercept, however, today’s results make it clear that it is a credible defense against ICBMs. In other words, this system in development is better than no system at all, and there is much room for improvement in the future.
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.