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Is North Korean Threat to Hit the USA for Real?
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Radhakrishna Rao | Date:02 Sep , 2016 0 Comments
Radhakrishna Rao
Strategic analyst specializing in aeronautics, defence, space technology and international security.

The mercurial North Korean dictator, Kim Jong -un, seems to have perfected the fine art of threatening the US with a missile strike every now and then. For quite some time now, North Korea, described as “a rogue state” and “hermit kingdom” has been claiming a series of significant breakthroughs in realizing its objective of developing a long range, nuclear capable missile to hit the shores of the US.

But then strategic analysts are of the view that North Korea is still a long way off from building a missile capable of reaching the US. Clearly and apparently, North Korea would need to master a range of advanced technologies before it would be in a position to deploy a long range missile robust enough to hit mainland USA.

However, North Korea appears to have the proven capability of hitting Japan and South Korea with its Scud and Rodong missiles that have demonstrated their striking punch in a series of flight tests carried out over a period of time. North Korea is known to have an arsenal of around 300 Rodong missiles which has an estimated range of 1300-km.

In early August 2016, North Korea once again outraged the international sentiment by carrying out a missile test. According to the US Strategic Command, North Korea fired two presumed Rodong missiles in one go and one of these had exploded mid-way while the other landed into the Sea of Japan within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Tokyo. Japan’s Defence Ministry was quick to claim that the missile landed inside Japan’s EEZ, the 200 nautical mile offshore area where a nation exercises its sovereign rights for the exploration and exploitation of resources. “It imposes a serious threat to Japan’s security and it is an unforgivable act of violence towards Japan’s security,” said Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. In response to North Korea flexing its “missile muscle,” Japan’s Defence Ministry has ordered it’s military to be on constant alert, ready to intercept North Korean ballistic missiles. Even so, a move by the UN Security Council to condemn North Korea for its latest missile test was thwarted by China. Incidentally, under a UN Security Council resolution, North Korea is not permitted to carry out missile tests.

Hardly a month seems to pass without North Korea claiming a missile launch or a nuclear test.  After a series of failures, in June 2016, North Korea test fired its mid-range ballistic missile known as Musadan to an altitude of  around 1400-km . The aim of this test was to help North Korea master the technique of carrying out high altitude missile flights. According to strategic analysts, this test involved the deployment of two Musadan missiles one of which failed.

Kim Jong-Un who personally monitored the Musudan missile test said, “We have the sure capability to attack in an overall and practical way the Americans in the Pacific operation theatre”. The Musadan is believed to have a theoretical range of anywhere between 2,500 and 4,000-km with the upper estimate covering US military bases as far away as Guam. According to North Korea’s  official KCNA news agency, the missile  was  fired at a high angle to simulate its full range and had reached a maximum height of more than 1,400-km.

In June 2016, North Korea also carried out a flight test of its submarine launched ballistic missile (SLBM). However, according to South Korean military sources, this test appears to have failed in the initial phase of the flight. Prior to this, in April 2016, North Korea had accomplished a test of an SLBM which it claimed to be a, “great success.”

To serve as a counterpoise to the North Korean missile threat, South Korea has decided to deploy THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence) missile for which it has already held discussions with its ally the USA. The plan to deploy THAAD missile in South Korea has angered both, Beijing and Moscow. Though Seoul has already put in place an anti-missile defence system, it can only target missiles at low altitudes.

THAAD can intercept missiles even as they move towards target and can target ballistic missiles even outside earth’s atmosphere. The US and South Korea initiated talks on deploying THAAD in the wake of the growing “missile threat” from North Korea. However it has not been revealed as to when and where in South Korea, the system would be deployed. China warned that plans to deploy this advanced missile defence system in the Korean peninsula could threaten its “strategic security interests” and may destabilize the region.

The official establishment of the US is of view that North Korea has  stepped up its plan to produce plutonium fuel, thereby pointing  out to its plan to pursue the nuclear weapons programme in defiance of international sanctions.

The US assessment came a day after the UN nuclear watchdog noted that it had “indications” that Pyongyang had reactivated a plan to get plutonium from spent reactor fuel from its facility at Yongbyon. This development suggests North Korea’s reclusive regime is working to ensure a steady supply of the strategic material for its drive to build warheads. In early 2016, North Korea had stunned the world with its nuclear explosion claimed to be a move towards realizing a hydrogen bomb.

North Korea has all set its sight on outer space. In Feb 2016, North Korea claimed that it had successfully launched a satellite into orbit.  The satellite called Kwangmyongsong-4 was said to be more advanced than the model it had launched earlier in Dec 2012. However there was no way to confirm that this mission was successful. As it is, the launch of Kwangmyongsong-4 remote sensing satellite is considered a smoke screen for testing a long range missile.

This secretive nation is known to be working towards developing the means to deliver its nuclear weapons over a long distance. According to US official sources, the satellite despite having achieved a stable orbit, could not transmit any data.

As international security experts point out, the display of military might has become a routine affair for North Korean political leadership keen on mounting psychological pressure on the international community. Now the focus in on how North Korea would withstand the rigours of UN sponsored sanctions which make it incumbent upon all the countries to thoroughly inspect cargo originating from and headed to North Korea. Under the UN sanctions, the sale of aviation fuel and rocket fuel to North Korea stands banned. Further, under the UN sanctions, there is also a ban on the export of coal, iron, iron ore, gold, titanium and rare earth minerals from North Korea. To tighten the squeeze on the “pariah regime” of North Korea, severe banking restrictions have been announced to make it difficult for North Korea to receive and transmit payment.

In fact, both Japan and South Korea have all along been advocating need for sanctions that are significantly stronger than those in force since 2006.  But then by exploiting the loopholes in the sanction regime, North Korea may manage to meet its most of its requirements without much of a problem. There is a perception that both China and Russia would find loopholes insofar as circumventing the provisions of UN sanctions are concerned.

In a dramatic development, in February 2016, a belligerent North Korea had taken an extraordinary measure of expelling all the South Koreans from the jointly operated Kaesong industrial zone which has now been handed over to the defence establishment of the country. In a statement Pyongyang said that Seoul’s earlier decision to close down the complex amounted to waging a war. North Korea has already seized the assets of all 129 South Korean enterprises located 10-km across the border inside North Korea. According to sources in North Korea based Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea, by closing down Kaesong, South Korea has destroyed the last lifeline of North-South relations.

On its part, South Korea has defended its action of  withdrawing  from Kaesong industrial complex, saying that North Korea has been misusing hundreds of millions of dollars that it earned from the complex to support its military oriented  missile and nuclear development  programmes.

Of course, India has reasons to get concerned about North Korean nuclear and rocket tests. Even though North Korea is not an immediate neighbour, by its act transferring some of the critical missile technologies to Pakistan, has contributed to the growing tension between India and Pakistan. For instance, the much touted Ghauri missile of Pakistan is claimed to be a clone of North Korea’s Nodong missile. Strategic analysts believe that North Korea is likely to help Pakistan in its quest for miniaturising its nuclear warheads too.

The international perception is that North Korean nuclear tests, missile firings and satellite launches are all meant to pressurise the US to the negotiating table wherein North Korea can extract concessions. It is a moot question whether, like Iran, North Korea would commit to scaling down and ultimately phasing out is military oriented nuclear-missile programme.

The unchecked  nuclear and missile tests ordered by the North Korean tyrannical and dictatorial regime of  Kim Jong Un, are said to be clever tactical ploy to  divert the attention of the people away from the pressing problems of poverty, hunger and deprivation. Unfortunately, amidst escalating tension North Korea continues to claim that all its nuclear and rocket tests are meant for peaceful civilian uses.

At the end of the day, the North Korean ambition to realize a long range missile strike capability could have severe implications for the global peace, stability, military balance and geo political equation. But then who will prevent the megalomaniac regime of Kim Jong Un from pursuing a destructive course?


August 3 Reuters report “Latest North Korea missile launch lands near Japan waters, alarms Tokyo”


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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

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