North Korea test fired yet another missile on Sunday. This time the test did not end in a fiasco. The missile was fired somewhere between 430 to 500 hundred miles, staying aloft for about 30 minutes at an altitude exceeding 1,240 miles, before landing in the Sea of Japan 60 miles south of Russia’s Vladivostok region. It exceeded in distance and altitude an intermediate-range missile that North Korea successfully tested last February. While reportedly not an intercontinental missile, North Korea is demonstrating with this successful test, according to at least one expert, a missile with a range as far as 3700 miles, putting Hawaii potentially at risk. The North Korean regime’s missile program is firing on all cylinders, including the use of mobile land-based and submarine launch platforms. It is only a matter of time before North Korea also conducts another, more powerful nuclear test in its relentless march towards achieving a strategic nuclear deterrence that would provide it with the leverage to extort its neighbors and threaten the U.S. mainland at will.
The White House issued a statement noting the proximity to Russia of the landing of its latest tested missile, and reiterating the U.S.’s firm commitment to protect its interests and those of its allies against North Korea’s provocations: “With the missile impacting so close to Russian soil – in fact, closer to Russia than to Japan – the President cannot imagine that Russia is pleased. North Korea has been a flagrant menace for far too long. South Korea and Japan have been watching this situation closely with us. The United States maintains our ironclad commitment to stand with our allies in the face of the serious threat posed by North Korea. Let this latest provocation serve as a call for all nations to implement far stronger sanctions against North Korea.”
South Korea’s newly elected President Moon Jae-In, while indicating more receptiveness to diplomatic talks with North Korea than his predecessor, called the missile test-launch a “clear” violation of UN Security Council resolutions, adding that “we should sternly deal with a provocation to prevent North Korea from miscalculating.”
North Korea’s leader Kim Jung-un appears oblivious to such condemnations and rhetorical threats. The latest missile launch was timed to send a clear message to South Korea’s new government, sworn in just days ago, that North Korea would not back down in the face of joint military exercises or other demonstrations of force by the United States, South Korea or their allies. If anything, such demonstrations are having the opposite effect, further convincing Kim Jung-un and his fellow leaders that North Korea’s only path to survival is a nuclear strike capability strong enough to dissuade the U.S. from daring to launch a pre-emptive military strike or invasion.
Sanctions are also clearly not enough to stop the North Korean regime from pursuing its nuclear arms and ballistic missile delivery objectives. Kim Jung-un could care less whether his people starve to death or not, as long as he can control them. North Korea has also proven to be very adept at evading sanctions through front organizations. According to a UN Panel of Experts report issued earlier this year, North Korea has successfully used front companies to obtain access to the international financial system.
“Designated entities and banks have continued to operate in the sanctioned environment by using agents who are highly experienced and well trained in moving money, people and goods, including arms and related materiel, across borders,” the report stated. “These agents use non-nationals of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as facilitators, and rely on numerous front companies. Behind these illicit activities is the continued access of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the international banking system. Banks of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea maintain correspondent bank accounts and representative offices abroad and partner with foreign companies in joint ventures. Banks and designated entities of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea make use of broad interwoven networks to undertake procurement and banking activity. Their ability to conceal financial activity by using foreign nationals and entities allows them to continue to transact through top global financial centres.”
Ironically, as reported by Inner City Press, the UN Federal Credit Union itself has solicited business from North Korean employees of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s mission to the UN.
The Trump administration has not ruled out the use of military force to stop North Korea from developing a nuclear armed intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting the U.S. mainland. The U.S.’s overwhelming fire power, which would rely primarily, according to a Stratfor Worldview report, on “stealth aircraft [such as the U.S. B-2 bomber and F-22 tactical fighter] and standoff cruise missiles launched from ships and submarines,” together with North Korea’s relatively weak air defense systems, would allow the U.S. to do serious damage to North Korea’s nuclear production infrastructure, storage facilities and delivery systems. However, it would be highly unlikely for a single strike to completely immobilize North Korea’s offensive military assets. The regime would still have at its disposal lethal retaliatory capabilities, including conventional artillery and commando forces, weapons of mass destruction and cyberwarfare tools. Thus, a preemptive strike against North Korea’s nuclear and missile facilities will most certainly trigger the regime to launch a devastating reprisal attack against South Korea, Japan, and U.S. bases and facilities in the region, potentially costing millions of lives.
On the other hand, the longer we sit back and allow North Korea to move ahead unimpeded with developing its strategic nuclear blackmail program, the more impossible it will become to completely neutralize the emerging existential threat.
The U.S. must accelerate the development and full deployment of robust missile defense systems both in the region of the Korean Peninsula, such as the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD) anti-missile system already installed in South Korea, and at key locations within the United States. It is encouraging that the U.S. Missile Defense Agency is planning to conduct later this month a flight intercept test of the ground-based mid-course ballistic missile defense system. As reported by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, citing the Missile Defense Agency, “That test will be the first time a ground-based missile interceptor launched from California attempts to smash into a ‘threat-representative’ intercontinental ballistic missile in its mid-course over the Pacific.”
In addition to stepping up cyberwarfare to sabotage North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, special force commandos are needed on the ground. According to the commander of Special Operations Command, preparations are underway for special force commandos to conduct covert operations against North Korea’s nuclear and missile facilities in the event of any future conflict. We cannot afford to wait until after a conflict breaks out, however. At the very least, why wait to deploy special forces on the ground in North Korea to gather intelligence in aid of pinpoint targeting of nuclear weapons and missile sites, including underground facilities and mobile missile launchers? Improved intelligence could also improve the ability to destroy or intercept advanced ballistic missiles intended for test-launching before they travel very far.
Earlier this spring, Pacific Command commander Adm. Harry Harris warned in congressional testimony about the rising North Korean threat: “With every test, Kim Jong Un moves closer to his stated goal of a preemptive nuclear strike capability against American cities, and he’s not afraid to fail in public.”
North Korea’s latest missile test did not fail. We cannot afford to continue the feckless policies of the past.