As the weekend approaches, a North Korean missile test on 9 or 10 October is appearing more probable. Analysts inside and outside of the US government have been examining the data coming across their desks and drawing conclusions. Although the data available to DOD, US combatant commands, and intelligence agencies is superior to what is available to external think tanks and agencies, the outside estimates are on par with their government counterparts . In short, a missile test is expected on Monday or Tuesday. Monday, 9 October is a holiday here in the United States and the anniversary of North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006. The following day, 10 October is the anniversary of the founding of the ruling Korean Workers Party, a day of celebration in the North. It’s apparent to the world now that Kim Jong Un has a penchant for raising tensions with missile, or nuclear tests on symbolic dates. This is one reason why many in the West suspect a test will be coming early next week. There are solid indications lately of a test in the near future. Earlier this week, missile components, and other types of equipment necessary for a test launch were transported from Pyongyang north to areas that have been launch sites in previous tests.
President Trump contributed to the restlessness concerning North Korea on Thursday with his ‘calm before the storm,’ comment to reporters. Quite frankly, his words were accurate. North Korea has been suspiciously quiet in the past two or three weeks. This could indicate a heightened amount of preparations underway behind the scenes for a missile test, or something more destabilizing. Trump’s words also hinted that the US is possibly prepared to respond militarily to whatever action North Korea may take in the coming days. Going down this road would be inherently risky. However, at this stage in the game the military option is becoming the only remaining course of action to deny North Korea from fielding missiles with inter-continental range that are able to reach the US mainland. It could very well be Kim Jong Un’s intention to stage a test that showcases North Korea’s ability to do just that. Should that be the case, Un may find out very quickly that he has overplayed his hand.
Contrary to the dispassionate tone of the media coverage it receives, the North Korean nuclear crisis remains firmly in escalation mode. If there was any doubt about that, Monday’s missile test should be enough to put it to rest once and for all. North Korea’s leadership is either unwilling to accept that the rules of its chess match with the United States have changed, or is unable to recognize it. Kim Jong Un continues to play the game as if Barack Obama is still his opponent. North Korea’s strategic moves and actions in 2017 appear to be geared towards Obama instead of Donald Trump. Because President Trump is not behaving, or reacting in the manner that his predecessor had, it’s left Kim stymied. Rather than explore a new approach, he’s opted instead to double down on senselessness and instigate a new round of brinkmanship.
North Korea’s latest missile test is especially provocative. The missile’s flight path took it directly over northern Japan, not very far from Misawa Air Base, a USAF installation. The missile broke into three pieces during flight and then impacted roughly 700 miles east of Japan in the waters of the Pacific Ocean. Tokyo has responded by labeling the test as reckless and unprecedented. North Korea’s action will undoubtedly strengthen Japan’s resolve and determination to stand firmly with the United States. If Kim Jong Un was hoping this missile test would result in a softening of the US, Japan, and South Korea’s position, he has misjudged the situation.
Kim’s miscalculations, and fallacies are the propellant that is escalating this crisis into dangerous territory. He is running short on opportunities to reverse the course he has put North Korea on. Heavy economic sanctions are being piled on the frail North Korean economy as Washington’s patience is wearing thin. Russia and China are reluctant to throw Pyongyang a lifeline as long as it continues to flaunt its nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities in the face of the United States and her allies in the region.
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.