War games – what you need to know about current North Korea’s nuclear politics

By Dijana Milenov and Mika Kanaya

What is a timeline of five nuclear tests?

1) October 9, 2006

North Korea initiated its first nuclear testing, becoming the eighth country in history.

2)  May 25, 2009

The North Korean official news agency announced that it “successfully conducted one more underground nuclear test…. as part of the measures to bolster up its nuclear deterrent for self-defense in every way.”

3)  February 12, 2013

UN approves fresh sanctions after North Korea stages its third nuclear test, said to be more powerful than the 2009 test.

4)  January 6, 2016

An anchorwoman in the state TV said, “The republic’s first hydrogen bomb test has been successfully performed.” Before the test, North Korean state media said the country “deserved to hold nuclear weapons… to counter nuclear threats by the U.S.”

5)  September 9, 2016

South Korea believes it is the North’s biggest-ever test, raising fears it has made significant nuclear advances. This was the first time North Korea conducted two nuclear tests within the same year.

What is the real issue this time?

Global political situation changed. There is a new president in the U.S., and Pyongyang is trying to reframe their relationship and the power dynamics by pushing the new administration. Despite the international strategies to pressure denuclearization, there is a worry that intercepting missiles could escalate tensions and risk war.

The Japan Times summarized the move as follows:

“Though tensions had been rising dangerously between Washington and Pyongyang in the lead-up to the April 15 anniversary, the biggest holiday of the year in North Korea, the heightened rhetoric and saber-rattling on both sides could begin to cool down — a pattern that has been common in recent years, especially in the spring, when the U.S. and South Korea stage their huge annual war games.

But this year, there is a new issue. In an interview with The Associated Press on Friday, a senior North Korean official said that Pyongyang has determined that Trump is “more vicious and aggressive” than his predecessor, Barack Obama. And Pyongyang is vowing it won’t back down.”[1]

What was a missile which exploded seconds after the launch on Sunday? 

The latest North Korean missile launch may have been of a new and hitherto unknown systems being developed by the leader Kim Jong Un’s regime, a weapons expert said Monday.

The Pentagon has not discussed which missile blew up “almost immediately” after launch early Sunday from near Sinpo on the North’s east coast, and the White House has said only that it was a medium-range device. John Schilling, a weapons expert with the 38 North monitoring group, said the launch failure was indicative of a new systems test.

What type of missiles North Korea owns and what is the real threat? 

North Korea’s big day, the anniversary of the birth of its founding leader, Kim Il Sung, was April 15 and the latest missiles were on display in a military parade. Experts believe the arsenal displayed in Saturday’s parade included a new kind of short-range cruise missile, probably for coastal defenses. North Korea also unveiled its latest submarine-launched ballistic missile and a version of the same missile that can be launched from land-based launchers — both of which use solid fuel and present a far greater challenge to find and destroy before they’re fired off. And it showed off canisters that seemed in line with what would be required for an intercontinental ballistic missile, which is Washington’s major concern.

However, the large and small missiles at the parade was meant to send out a strong message that North Korea is able to “project its power well beyond its own borders”. At the very least, to the U.S. military bases in Japan. At the most, to the U.S. mainland itself.


How does China, a long-term ally of North Korea, handle the situation?
 

China’s bottom line is that it does not want the collapse of the regime in Pyongyang if that leads to a chaotic power vacuum, possibly filled by the U.S. and its allies. China is also concerned about South Korea’s deployment of an anti-missile defense system (known as THAAD), and by the allies’ annual joint military exercises. So, there is a strong pressure from Beijing on North Korea. They have implemented economic sanctions such as refusing coal shipments and they are talking about cutting off oil shipments. Flights between Beijing and Pyongyang operated by Air China were also suspended on April 17. However, NPR points out tighter implementation of economic sanctions could be challenging.

“Most of China’s giant state-owned enterprises have scant involvement with North Korea; they have too many interests elsewhere to risk getting sanctioned in pursuit of limited profits. Smaller firms more often find smuggling worth the risk, and Beijing often cannot control them, because local authorities protect them.”[2]

President Donald Trump also tweeted on Sunday that Beijing was “working with us on the North Korean problem”. He had stated last week that the U.S. and its allies may “deal with” Pyongyang if China did not.

What was the U.S. response this time?

1) Mike Pence visit to South Korea

U.S. Vice President, Mike Pence on Monday warned North Korea not to test the determination of the U.S. “or the strength of our military forces”. “We will defeat any attack and we will meet any use of conventional or nuclear weapons with an overwhelming and effective response,” Pence said, adding that when it came to North Korea “all options are on the table.”[3]

2) An aircraft carrier group

Last week, President Donald Trump said that an aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson was sent to Korean Peninsula as a warning to Kim Jong-Un’s government. However, a Navy photograph over the weekend showed the Carl Vinson in the Sunda Strait near the Indonesian islands, 3,000 miles from Korean Peninsula.

3) Radiation sniffer plane

The U.S. Air Force WC-135C Constant Phoenix Nuclear explosion “sniffer” has arrived in Japan. There are only two aircrafts of this type and one of them is in Japan since April 12.

Future actions? 

Han Song-Ryol, North Korea’s deputy foreign minister told the BBC that Pyongyang would continue to test missiles “on a weekly, monthly and yearly basis”[4]. “All-out war would ensue if the U.S. took military action, he said.”[5]

The Korea Herald reports that the Carl Vinson Strike Group is due to arrive in the region by April 25, the day that North Korea is due to commemorate the 85th anniversary of the founding of its army. Some experts believe that Pyongyang may choose to conduct its sixth nuclear test, or another missile launch, around that date. The U.S. Vice President Mike Pence will be in Hawaii on April 24-25, concluding his 10-day trip to Asia.

Sources:

[1] http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2017/04/17/world/north-koreas-big-parade-whats-next/#.WPaMQBF1tbY

[2] http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2017/04/18/524341304/on-china-and-north-korea-the-strength-of-weakness-and-the-limits-of-power

[3] http://www.cnn.com/2017/04/16/politics/us-north-korea-dmz-vice-president-pence/

[4] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-39623882

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/apr/18/us-military-shoot-down-north-korea-missile-tests

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