North Korea’s ‘Day of the Sun’ celebrations brought with them threats of another nuclear weapons trial, almost drawing the US in to a head on confrontation.
N orth Korea’s approach to diplomacy is typified by a video broadcast this week depicting missiles soaring across the Pacific before engulfing California in flames. Such provocation has become the norm for the hermit state, and the West’s reaction has usually been to laugh, albeit darkly.
Recently, however, the threats delivered to the US by Kim Jong-un’s regime have been less amusing and more ominous.
Barack Obama’s “strategic patience” kept direct conflict at bay, preferring sanctions and diplomacy to contain the North Korean threat. But under the orders of President Donald Trump, America’s military has creaked into motion, and as red lines have been hinted at by both sides, suddenly the North’s warnings that “thermonuclear warfare could break out at any moment” sound very alarming.
Trump’s armada deployed
Saturday, the 105th anniversary of the birth of North Korea’s founding father, Kim Il-sung, was awaited with grim anticipation by foreign observers. The Kims have a tendency to celebrate big occasions with muscle-flexing missile tests. Given Kim Jong-un’s track record, analysts feared he might mark the celebrations with the country’s sixth nuclear test, which would have been the fourth under his leadership.
Such a test held real potential to ignite a conflict. The US’ recent bombing of Syrian government forces and use of the ‘mother of all bombs’ on Islamic State in Afghanistan signalled a willingness to use force in new and unpredictable ways. Tensions flared to such high levels that Mr. Trump declared he was sending an “armada” towards the peninsula.
Senior US intelligence officials told NBC News that Washington was "prepared to launch a preemptive strike with conventional weapons against North Korea" if a nuclear test was conducted. North Korea hit back, with senior official Choe Ryong Hae stating: “We will respond to full-out war with full-out war and to nuclear war with our style of nuclear strike warfare.”
But North Korea’s nuclear test sites remained quiet (apart from what looked like a game of volleyball) as Mr. Kim opted instead to test a regular missile, which exploded almost immediately after launching.
North Korea’s arsenal on show
Despite the failed missile launch, the celebrations in Pyongyang succeeded in sending a warning across the Pacific. Saturday’s military parade put on show a number of weapons previously unseen in North Korea’s arsenal, including what appeared to be two new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
“We saw a number of significant developments in the parade,” Joshua Pollack, editor of the Washington-based Nonproliferation Review, told The World Weekly. He added though that “not all of them represent fully mature programmes.” The ICBMs on display are as-yet untested.
The more immediate threat on display were several launch vehicles for the newly tested Pukkuksong-2 medium-range missile. This kind of missile could be deployed in a discreet location and could strike regional US allies South Korea and Japan.
Its appearance added to the panic south of the Demilitarised Zone. “South Koreans are a bit desensitised to the security situation in the Korean peninsula because North Korea’s nuclear problems have been here for about 25 years, but this time public concern was extraordinary,” Jaechun Kim, professor of international relations at Sogang University, told TWW.
Two front-runners in the race for South Korea’s presidency have retracted their pledges to oppose America’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system (THAAD), which is currently being rolled out. “Opposing THAAD is politically incorrect at this stage,” Professor Kim said.
On the brink of conflict?
Despite the tensions, many analysts are confident North Korea would not be so rash as to strike the US or its allies preemptively. “The ultimate goal of the North Korean leadership is its regime survival,” Heajin Kim, a nuclear proliferation expert from the Wilson Centre in Washington, told TWW. “If the North threatens US national interests directly, there will be retaliations by the United States and it will ultimately threaten the regime survival of North Korea.”
As hostile as the rhetoric from North Korea has been, its actions can be construed as defensive. “President Trump’s demonstration of his willingness to attack other countries will have only reinforced [North Korea’s] commitment to developing a second strike nuclear capability, in the belief that something approaching ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ is the only real guarantor of their protection,” says Tristan Webb, a senior analyst at NK, a research organisation.
Indeed, much of this week’s action appears to have been posturing. Mr. Trump’s “armada” has ended up in the Indian Ocean as was originally planned. The danger, many observers fear, is that these two unpredictable leaders will one day step over the brink and into conflict.