North Korea Tests Its Newest ICBM

Slipping away from Ukraine for a brief spell, North Korea’s latest missile test is raising concerns across the world. The US, South Korea and Japan have all condemned what looks to be the test of an ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) by the North on Thursday, its first ICBM test since 2017. The test was far from unexpected. US officials have been warning for weeks now that an ICBM test was probable in the ‘near future.’ The missile flew for 71 minutes, traveled a distance of 671 miles, and reached a maximum altitude of 3,852 miles. It landed 100 miles off the coast of Japan, prompting Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to label the launch as ‘reckless’ and ‘unacceptable.’

This missile, officially named the Hwasong-17, has upgraded capabilities over its predecessor, with the ability to reach the United States and carry multiple-independently targeted re-entry vehicles. In other words, more than a single warhead. It is more of a threat to the United States than Western Pacific nations, yet this has not deterred South Korea from staging its own demonstration in response to Pyongyang’s launch, firing its own ballistic and cruise missiles and dropping guided bombs, in order to “demonstrate the determination and capability to immediately respond and punish” North Korea.

Russia Claims To Have ‘Expelled’ A US Warship In The Sea of Japan

A US Navy freedom of navigation exercise (FON) in the Sea of Japan appears to have attracted the attention of the Russian government. On Tuesday, according to the Russian defense ministry,  the USS John S McCain crossed Russia’s maritime border in Peter the Great Bay. A Russian warship, the destroyer Admiral Vinogradov  warned the McCain she would be rammed if it did not depart from Russian territorial waters and then chased the US ship into international waters.

The US Navy’s version of events was decidedly different. A 7th Fleet spokesman called the Russian claim false. “USS John S McCain was not ‘expelled’ from any nation’s territory.” He said the US would “never bow in intimidation or be coerced into accepting illegitimate maritime claims, such as those made by the Russian Federation.” Incidents at sea between US and Russian warships are rare, yet similar incidents occurred regularly in the later years of the Cold War. Placed in modern context, this encounter bears a resemblance to those taking place occasionally between the US Navy and China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in the South China Sea.

One must wonder about Russia’s motivation for trying to turn this rather minor matter into something more substantial. The prospects of an incoming Biden administration could be a mitigating factor. After all, Biden has claimed throughout the course of the 2020 campaign that he would take a stronger stance towards Russia if elected. This, coupled with the four year long rant from Democratic politicians about how Russia is consistently attempting to undermine America’s democracy may finally be coming home to roost in 2021. If Biden’s presidency does become a reality, Russia will likely test the new American leader early on in his first term.

On the other side of the coin, this matter might simply be Russia’s response to the US formally leaving the Treaty on Open Skies this past weekend.

Japan-South Korea Relations Simmer

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The relationship between Japan, and South Korea is best described as ‘allies and economic partners by necessity and circumstance.’ Remove nuclear-armed North Korea, and an increasingly powerful China from the equation and it is unlikely Tokyo and Seoul would even be civil enough to give each other the time of day. The geopolitical, and economic realities of the present demand the two states work together on a variety of issues. This does not mean either one has to like it, however.

The two nations share a troubled history. In 1910 Japan annexed Korea and ruled the peninsula until its defeat in 1945. During the period of colonial rule, the Japanese mistreated and exploited Korean citizens. The two most notorious examples of this abuse are found in the wartime labor practices, and the use of Korean females as ‘comfort women.’ These practices reveal that Japan seemingly enslaved the Korean populace during World War II to support its war effort.

These points have continued to dog Japanese-South Korean relations for decades, from the end of World War II up to the present day. Even though the two nations normalized relations in 1965, there was always a layer of tension right beneath the surface. Periodically, that tension has boiled over and set back the relationship for a period of months, or even years.

At present, Japan-South Korean relations have deteriorated to their lowest point since the 1960s. Tensions were raised considerably by an incident in December, 2018 when a South Korean destroyer locked its radar onto a Japanese P-1 patrol aircraft. Both sides disagree on the series of events that took place, and the context. Nevertheless, the disagreement has escalated and pushed the historical disputes mentioned earlier to the forefront once more.

With a US-North Korean summit approaching, and China’s economic troubles raising concerns, this is hardly the ideal time for two of the most stable nations in the region to be at odds. Even more so, this is not the time for two of the United States’ closest allies in the Western Pacific to  be distracted. Not surprisingly, some observers, and journalists have laid the blame for the current Japan-South Korea troubles on the White House. While it is true that the Trump administration’s handling of US allies has been very different from his predecessor, blaming the White House is an empty-headed move motivated by politics.

Still, Washington will have to step in sooner or later if relations do not improve. The US needs to play the role of a concerned friend, or  mediator instead of choosing a side. There is simply too much at stake in the region for two of America’s closest allies to be adding to the tension, and instability that’s already present.

Tuesday 28 November, 2017 Update: North Korea Returns to the Front Burner

Flag is pictured outside the Permanent Mission of North Korea in Geneva

Given today’s events in northeast Asia it is safe to assume the shell game that has been going on between the United States and North Korea for years now will become a standoff or worse in the near future. The North Koreans broke its two month moratorium on ballistic missile tests in bold fashion today by test firing an ICBM. The missile was launched from a site in South Pyongan province and flew in an eastward direction for roughly 50 minutes, covering 620 miles before falling into the Sea of Japan.

North Korea had been quiet for some time and hope was building that Pyongyang might be signaling that it is open to dialogue. Experts have pointed to similar lulls in North Korean missile testing in the past, leaving open the possibility that the slowdown in tests is part of the routine. This could very well be the case, however, with the direction events are moving in now it’s rather meaningless to speculate on what brought on the lull. What’s more important now for the United States is to determine the intent behind today’s test and planning an appropriate military response. A US military response at this point should not ruled out or considered implausible. The risks attached to military action are considerable, but economic and political measures have failed to deter Pyongyang from continuing to pursue a workable ICBM. Furthermore, there are few non-violent tools left in the box for the US to use against North Korea.

*Author’s Note: Short update for the evening. Apologies, time is very limited. I’ll follow up tomorrow with a more thorough update.*

Sunday 30 April, 2017 Update: Carl Vinson Arrives in the Sea of Japan

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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.