Rex Tillerson’s Tour of Asia so far seems to have been, in large part, devoted to the issue of North Korea. The small hermit kingdom has been decried as a thorn in the side of the West and its neighbours for decades, and its nuclear ambitions have only heightened the scrutiny with which the rest of the world views the country. But the question that seems to have been taken for granted is, is North Korea a Threat, and if so, to whom?
North Korea’s first nuclear weapon test occurred in 2006, with most analysts believing the explosion was a “fizzle” or unsuccessful detonation. Since then the nation has carried out several more nuclear weapon tests and seems to have been able to create working nuclear devices. While the small nation contends that it’s most recent tests have been of hydrogen bombs, a much more destructive form of nuclear device also known as a thermonuclear bomb, most authorities disagree based upon seismic data captured from the test.
The issue most analysts are paying close attention to in the past few months is the development of the North Korean rocket program. In February of 2016 North Korea succeeded in launching a satellite into orbit, a move that many criticised as simply an attempt to mask an ICBM test. Even more recently they have launched several rockets into the sea near Japan, heightening tensions in the region.
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On March 19, 2017, the DPRK claimed to have tested a new “high thrust” rocket engine, moving them closer to having the ability to strike at the west coast of the United States. It is this concern that many commentators and politicians have been citing as a reason the United States has to step up its action against North Korea. The test prompted U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to warn that military action is “on the table,” while also ruling out any talks with North Korea over their nuclear program.
It is over 5,ooo miles from North Korea to California, but the Unha rocket used in the launch of their first space satellite does have the range to deliver a nuclear payload to the western seaboard of the U.S. The United States has, however, significant missile defences to protect from any missile launched in Asia. The much discussed THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) system is a localised anti-missile defence designed by Lockheed Martin. The U.S. has THAAD units in South Korea, Guam, Hawaii, California, and Alaska. These systems use ground based radar and multiple projectiles to destroy an incoming missile.
The THAAD system has a very good record in testing, but has of course never faced real action. Another level of defence in this case is the Aegis ship based system, also developed and sold by Lockheed Martin. The Aegis system is not only on U.S. Ships in the Pacific, but also those of the the Japanese and South Korean navies. The web of multiple ballistic missile defence systems in the Pacific is robust, and the U.S. military likely has other secretive plans to either attempt to prevent a missile launch that threatens other nations, or to prevent the missile from reaching its target.
Lockheed Martin did not return our request for a comment on the efficacy of their systems against a potential North Korean ICBM launch.
The true threat from North Korea is to the South, and particularly the city of Seoul, which lies a mere 35 miles from the DMZ. North Korea practices a “military first” policy, diverting most of its scant resources to the military rather than other forms of development. What the North lacks in technologically advanced weapons, naval, and air forces, it makes up for in sheer manpower. The Korean People’s Army maintains 700,000 active front-line personnel and 4.5 million in reserve. Along with this is significant artillery, aimed across the border at the South.
In the case of any sudden military action, the People’s Army would immediately launch an artillery barrage, decimating Seoul before any counter-action could be launched. While any nuclear missile would have a difficult time reaching its target, the North likely has a significant number of conventional weapons, fully capable wreaking havoc by themselves.
Any military action by the North would invariably bring in the United States, as pursuant to the Mutual Defense Treaty Between the United States and the Republic of Korea. The United States technological superiority and large naval forces in the theatre would provide a considerable offensive against the DPRK, and would likely be joined by forces from around the world. At the time of this writing, however, only one U.S. carrier group is at sea.
The Trump administration’s apparent reluctance to rely on direct diplomacy to handle the North Korean nuclear problem means that North Korea’s only major ally in the region, China, will likely be pressured to tame North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. The question still remains whether Kim Jong Un would really push his country to war, or if it is more bluster designed to deter interference in the North’s affairs. Many policy analysts believe that the North is Pursuing nuclear weapons and rocket technology mainly to hold a bargaining chip against the Western world. The current leader, Kim Jong Un, was educated abroad in Switzerland, and should understand the geopolitical situation. In any military conflict, the DPRK would not win, but it has the power to inflict massive damage regionally. That is not counting the casualties to the U.S. and coalition forces that would occur in such a conflict.
The world has seen many actions like these from North Korea in recent years. The most pressing issue is how the new administration in the U.S. will interact with them, and whether they really are willing to use military force, tipping the scales in what has been a cycle of escalation and negotiation.