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.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has offered her nation’s participation in future negotiations with North Korea on its nuclear program. She took her comments a step farther by suggesting that the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran would make an excellent model for negotiations. Merkel’s intervention come at a point when she is in the midst of a reelection campaign. Even though she is widely expected to win, campaign season is traditionally a time for incumbent leaders to take the opportunity to float ideas by their constituents, as well as their neighbors and allies to see how they might play in Stuttgart or Brussels.
President Trump’s handling of the North Korea crisis has unsettled some of Washington’s European allies. For a continent that became used to the less proactive foreign policy approach of Trump’s predecessor this is understandable. During the Obama years, US policy towards states like Iran, and North Korea were centered around multi-party negotiations, and the threat of economic sanctions. A stringent effort was made to avoid discussing potential military options if the terms of any future agreement was violated. Trump’s approach is different in many respects, most notably when it comes to discussing military options. He has made it clear that the United States will retaliate should North Korea launch a missile against US territory. Trump has also made it apparent that the military option is not off the table when it comes to ending North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Talk like this is horrifying to many Europeans, especially diplomats and leaders unaccustomed to such forward non-diplospeak on sensitive matters.
However, remarks by the leader of a US ally that champion the Iran nuclear deal as a success are equally as distressing to many Americans. Contrary to what the media spins on the subject of the Iran deal, the majority of Americans remain against it. Even if this were not the case, the North Korean situation has few parallels to Iran’s. Pyongyang already has nuclear weapons, and an ability to use them against targets located on US territory. The North has also directly threatened to use these weapons against the US should economic or political pressure damage its economy and nuclear program.
Merkel fails to recognize that future negotiations with North Korea will be destined to fail. Not because of what could be perceived as aggressive posturing by the United States, but because North Korea does not want them to succeed. Pyongyang’s main goal right now is to buy the time needed for its nuclear scientists, and ballistic missile engineers to produce a hydrogen device, and a missile that it can be fitted to respectively. Kim Jong Un is interested in nothing less.
Angela Merkel and Germany do not have a dog in this fight. For that matter, neither does Europe. North Korea is not levying threats on Western Europe, and likely will not be doing so in the near future. It is threatening the US on a daily basis and given the direction that the crisis is moving in, negotiations involving Germany or other European nations are not a viable avenue to explore at the moment.
Vladimir Putin would never allow a good crisis to go to waste, so it is no surprise to find him speaking his mind on the North Korean crisis. During the 2017 BRICS summit in Xiamen, China, the Russian leader took some time to speak about the simmering situation in northeast Asia. To be honest, Putin’s comments were not earthshattering by any means. He offered his opinion that economic sanctions are likely not going to persuade North Korea from dropping its nuclear weapons program, and championed diplomacy as the sole course of action left which can resolve the crisis peacefully. Putin also issued a frank, and somewhat dramatic warning that further escalation of the crisis could result in a “planetary catastrophe.” While his observations are not very insightful, they are more or less accurate. Sanctions will not do any more good and if this crisis continues to escalate it could result in the use of nuclear weapons, and a regional war that causes tens of thousands of deaths.
Putin’s words are not the result of newfound respect and concern for humanity. He did not wake up yesterday morning, hug a tree and suddenly decide that what the world needs now is love. Vladimir Putin is a man who rarely takes action or says something unless there is some benefit to be gained for him or his country.
In this case, the favor Putin’s words might bring about is more concentrated global attention on the North Korean situation just as Russian military forces are preparing to commence the large scale Zapad 17 maneuvers in Belarus. There has been considerable speculation about what will come from the exercises. Some Western observers are suspicious of Putin’s intentions, believing that when Zapad concludes, the Russians may not leave entirely. It could mark the beginning of a permanent major Russian military presence in Belarus, or perhaps a move of some sort in Ukraine, not necessarily a military one either.
If he does plan to take some sort of action during or after Zapad, the current North Korean crisis potentially provides him with perfect cover. Even though he is despised by many, Putin’s thoughts on North Korea will carry weight and cause politicians and media types to consider the crisis more carefully. As that is happening, the scrutiny that has been placed on Russia lately will dissipate briefly, giving Putin a potential window of opportunity. Perhaps he will make use of it, perhaps not.
Either way, the Russian president’s public statements about North Korea make it seem that he is considering the possibility at the very least.
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.*
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.