It’s a nightmare scenario that nobody wants, but the US and North Korea are inching closer to war with a heated exchange of threats. Renewed threats from both sides have come after a summer of tension as North Korea repeatedly tested its intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capabilities while the US demanded it halt such activities. On Tuesday the Washington Post reported that US officials have determined North Korea is now constructing missile ready nuclear weapons.
The Washington Post had been notified that:
“The IC [intelligence community] assesses North Korea has produced nuclear weapons for ballistic missile delivery, to include delivery by ICBM-class missiles”.
In order to be considered an ICBM, a missile must have a minimum range of 5,500km or 3,400 miles. To be an operational nuke it must also have a miniaturized warhead and be able to survive re-entry into the atmosphere in order to reach long-ranged targets in the United States. North Korea’s ICBM claims have now been confirmed by the South Korea, the US and Japan.
As the Guardian reported in early July.
There is general agreement that this was Pyongyang’s most successful missile test since its ballistic missile programme gathered pace in the late 1990s. Less convincing is the North’s claim that the missile can reach any target in the world.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said that the United States does not want regime change in North Korea, but that all options are on the table. On Tuesday, President Trump indicated that a military option could be considered if the North’s threats continued. The president told reporters:
“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States, they will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen. He [Kim Jong Un] has been very threatening and as I said they will be met with fire, fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.”
In response to that statement by the president, the Korean military has threatened to launch a missile strike against the American Pacific island territory of Guam where the US has around 6,000 troops stationed as well as its nuclear capable B-52 bombers.
According to a Reuters report on Tuesday:
“The KPA Strategic Force is now carefully examining the operational plan for making an enveloping fire at the areas around Guam with medium-to-long-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 in order to contain the U.S. major military bases on Guam including the Anderson Air Force Base,”
Korean tests have been met with American threats, including tests of their own as well as bomber exercises over the border with South Korea. The military has also suggested shooting down any test missiles North Korea launches.
The Guardian reported in April that Defense Secretary James Mattis has suggested the strategy to Congress.
[T]he military was looking at attempting a missile shoot-down with an Aegis missile-defense system aboard a US navy destroyer; or by convincing Japan to use its own missile-defense capabilities against a ballistic missile test traversing Japanese waters.
For now, the response has been limited to diplomatic measures including sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council (UNSC). Although critics of sanctions say that this approach will not be effective in deterring North Korea, particularly because the new sanctions do not include oil imports.
According to a New York Times report from Monday Aug 7:
The new measures prohibit all exports of North Korean coal, iron, iron ore, lead ore and seafood. They put new restrictions on North Korea’s Foreign Trade Bank, forbid the country to increase the number of workers sent abroad and strengthen oversight of North Korean shipping.
China is also seen as a key partner in deescalating the conflict since it is the only country which maintains consistent diplomatic relations with North Korea. In the past China has been reluctant to help the West in reining in North Korea, but as tensions have risen the Chinese government has begun to step in.
The BBC reported on Sunday that China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi encouraged North Korea to stop its missile tests.
Mr Wang said sanctions were needed, but “are not the final goal”, and he urged dialogue. He said he had told North Korea to remain calm, and not provoke the international community with more tests.
According to experts, North Korea is presumed to have anywhere from 10 to 60 nuclear weapons in its arsenal compared to the United States’ 6,800 – of which 2,800 are set to be dismantled as part of international disarmament treaties.
But that difference in numbers is relatively unimportant because neither country is likely to launch a massive strike. What is more important is the bargaining power a nuclear arsenal gives the country that possesses it.
All five permanent members of the UNSC (US, Russia, China, UK and France) are nuclear armed countries. Beyond that the only other countries who posses nuclear weapons are India and Pakistan (while some insist that Israel has an undeclared arsenal).
North Korea has used missile tests in the past as a bargaining chip for aid from the West, though its new leader, Kim Jong Un, is seen as less stable than his predecessors and a nuclear armed North could totally change the power structure of the region.
The war between North and South Korea came to a ceasefire in July of 1953 meaning that the war never officially ended. It left the border between the two countries as the most heavily armed in the world where the United States currently has nearly 40,000 troops stationed.