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Bluster or Nuclear War? The Recent Threat Escalation on the Korean Peninsula

With rising tensions in northeast Asia inflamed by recent North Korean threats and ever-greater levels of belligerent rhetoric, the world is on edge, watching the Hermit Kingdom with concern. North Korea has continued to increase the belligerence ante. Within the past months, North Korea has successfully tested a long-range missile and its most powerful nuclear weapon to date, closed the joint North and South Korea Kaesong industrial complex, threatened nuclear attacks against the United States, South Korea and Japan, and prepared for the first test of its Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missile. By assessing the geopolitical background to the conflict, North Korean missile capability, and threat assessment metrics, the chance of a North Korean nuclear strike remains possible, but less likely than missile tests and conventional short-range strikes amid tactical miscalculation.

A Firm and Cautious Global Response

The international community has attempted to firmly oppose North Korean threats while preventing unnecessary conflict escalation. China, Russia, South Korea, Japan and the US have publicly denounced North Korea’s continuing rhetorical and military belligerence. The US recently flew a stealth B-2 bomber sortie as well as F-22 fighters over the Korean Peninsula as a demonstration of military strength. The Obama Administration reversed previous policy decision by augmenting missile defense systems in the Pacific.

These missile defense systems enable threatened countries to tolerate North Korean rhetoric and bluster without resorting to preemptive strikes. On April 1, the US and Japan moved Aegis destroyers, equipped with missile defense and sensor systems, into the Sea of Japan. South Korea deployed two surveillance destroyers to the east and west of the Korean peninsula. Japan also deployed PAC-3 Patriot missile defense systems in Tokyo. These defense systems, according to recent testimony by Admiral Locklear before the Senate Armed Services Committee, would disable any incoming ballistic missile should North Korea choose to launch.

Political Leadership in Transition

Political uncertainty caused by leadership changes in both North and South Korea is one of the major underlying causes of the current escalation. After the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in December 2012, his son Kim Jong-un took political leadership. Since taking the reins of power, Kim Jung-un has attempted to establish himself in the same mold as his father and grandfather Kim Il-sung.

New totalitarian leaders commonly attempt to bolster their public persona and international image to establish their global reputation and quell the possibility of internal domestic dissent. Kim Jong-un is no exception. His agitation on the Korean Peninsula and belligerence against the international community is prompted at least in part by these domestic and international concerns.

South Korea elected its first female President Park Geun-hye who assumed office February 25, 2013. Historically, North Korea has always tested new South Korean leaders within the first year of their term to intimidate them and, in the words of North Korea defectors, “train them like a dog.” 2013 has been no exception to that long-term strategy. Kim Jong-un has both threatened and insulted Park Geun-hye, testing her resolve and asserting North Korean power.

These two factors—South Korea’s recent presidential election and the rise of Kim Jung Un to North Korean leadership—combine to create the geo-political backdrop for the current elevation of tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

Missiles on the Move

Over the past week, North Korea has moved two missiles to its eastern coast. The missiles have been spotted, fueled and ready to launch in Wonsan, Gangwon Province, on the east coast just north the demilitarized zone. According to Imagery Intelligence, the missiles are Musudans, an Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM), capable of being armed with either conventional high explosives or nuclear warheads with a maximum payload of 1,200 kg. The Musudan has several other alternate names including Mirim, No Dong B, and BM-25. According to reports from 2003, the Musudan is a ground-launched variant of the Russian R-27/RSM-25 submarine-launched ballistic missile. While specifications are speculative, the Musudan’s estimated range is 2,500-4,400 km. It is not yet known whether Musudans have been tested, though North Korea’s test fire of a Scud C in 2006 and Iranian tests of its Shabab 3 in 2006 could have been Musudans.

It is also uncertain if North Korea has developed the capacity for miniaturized nuclear warheads suitable for arming Musudan-type MRBM. The North Korean nuclear program is principally indigenous, but Pyongyang received technological assistance from Pakistan and Abdul Qadeer Khan. A March 2013 Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) Report assessed with “moderate confidence” that North Korea had developed nuclear warheads that could be mated with a ballistic missile. However, the Pentagon publicly stated on April 11 that, “it would be inaccurate to suggest that the North Korean regime has fully tested, developed, or demonstrated (a miniaturized nuclear warhead).” Additionally, given the limited amount of plutonium available for DPRK nuclear development and the fact that Musudans have not been fully tested, it is doubtful North Korea would arm either of the two Musudans currently on its eastern coast with nuclear capable warheads. Despite these factors, however, a nuclear strike remains possible.

The range of the Musudan missiles augments North Korea’s existing capability to strike South Korea and Japan with Scud and No Dong missiles, respectively. The Musudan would enable North Korea to threaten U.S. bases in Okinawa and Guam. Pyongyang continues to develop the Taepo Dong ICBM which eventually will have the ability to threaten the continental United States with a nuclear warhead.

North Korea likely intends to test the Musudan missile’s capabilities by test firing the missile on a flight path over central Japan. Japan has not publicly announced whether it will shoot down a missile entering their airspace targeting the open ocean. During previous North Korean launches, Tokyo announced it would only target North Korean missiles if it were determined to be a threat to Japanese territory. If Japan or the United States were to intercept the missiles, the potential for conflict escalation rises dramatically.

A Three-Pronged Threat Analysis

One metric for assessing threats uses three criteria: capability, willingness, and threatened violence. If North Korea is capable of a strike, willing to strike, and threatening to strike, the possibility of actual conflict is high. Assessing the current situation using these criteria, the likelihood of a premeditated North Korean strike is possible but highly unlikely.

North Korea is certainly threatening to strike and has done so for years. While North Korean capability to strike the US Homeland remains dubious, the capacity is advancing. Although targets like Japan, South Korea, or perhaps Guam remain in reach, the Musudan IRBM in question is not well suited for such targets. Thus North Korean striking capability is possible, but less than likely. Lastly, North Korean willingness to strike is uncertain, but also unlikely. Given Kim Jong-un’s desire for regime preservation and international prestige, the possibility of miscalculation remains greater than a premeditated strike.

The Present Danger

The more likely danger is if North Korea simultaneously launches short range weapons during its Musudan test fire. This has been a previous North Korean tactic. Tests in 2006 and 2009 also featured accompanying short range barrages. South Korean intelligence suggests that North Korea is moving Rodong and Scud missiles to South Hamgyong Province, north of Wonsan, where four or five mobile Transporter Erector Launchers (TEL) were recently erected. Given the escalated conflict level at present, North Korea may direct these at South Korea, most likely the outer islands. However, it is more likely that North Korea will use artillery rather than missiles to attack the islands, as they did in the 2010 shelling of Yeonpyeong that killed 4 South Korean military and civilians. North Korea has moved long range artillery closer to the West Sea islands and Kim Jong-un has visited the area, making specific threats.

Kim Jong-un, despite his incessant rhetoric and eccentric leadership, still appears to desire continued power through regime preservation. Yet, because of Kim Jong-un’s relative leadership inexperience, the chance for tactical miscalculation is certainly present. Kim’s rhetoric since taking office has become increasingly drastic with little room for continued verbal threat escalation.

While Kim Jong-un and his predecessors have threatened destruction on South Korea and the US many times before, the difference between then and now revolves around Kim Jong-un’s inexperience and rapidly escalating verbal threats. Since it will be difficult for Kim to increase his threats, he must either back down, appearing weak to his people and the international community, or back up verbal threats with actual action. Inexperience may lead to miscalculation and conflict. While North Korean military action remains possible, a North Korean missile targeting South Korea, Japan, or US bases is less likely than a test missile shot over Japan into the open ocean, perhaps accompanied by several Scud missiles or artillery targeting South Korea. While a Musudan test launch itself is not dangerous, it will further escalate tensions because, as a violation of UN Security council resolutions, a launch will push the US to push for increased UN sanctions, which in turn will trigger further North Korean provocations. The threat is, therefore, very real and demands careful policies from the US and the international community that will balance strong defense with peaceful overtures.

Seth McKinnis is an analyst with a background in international relations, foreign policy, and security. He has served as the Editor of the Intelligencer Journal for Intelligence Studies and International Relations as well as an Editorial Assistant for the International Journal of Religious Freedom. Seth has published on International Affairs and Security for publications including The Heritage Foundation. He holds a BA in International Politics and Policy from Patrick Henry College.

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