Get caught up on the escalating war of words over Pyongyang’s weapons program and what the United States, South Korea and Asian nations are doing about it
- From the wind-swept deck of the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, Vice-President Mike Pence on Wednesday warned North Korea not to test the resolve of the U.S. military, promising it would make an “overwhelming and effective” response to any use of conventional or nuclear weapons.
- Mr. Pence made the speech to U.S. and Japanese sailors in Tokyo Bay as he continued a 10-day Asian trip, partly intended as a U.S. show of force over North Korea’s weapons tests. On Tuesday, he met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. His next stop is Indonesia, where he will meet President Joko (Jokowi) Widodo on Wednesday.
- The U.S. Pacific Command said in a statement Wednesday that the USS Carl Vinson strike group is heading to the western Pacific “as a prudent measure.”
- Senior North Korean officials have reiterated recent rhetorical warnings that the situation is escalating, and said the missile tests were far from over. “We’ll be conducting more missile tests on a weekly, monthly and yearly basis,” Vice Foreign Minister Han Song-ryol said in an interview with the BBC released late on Monday.
- Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi made a new appeal for calm on the Korean Peninsula on Tuesday and said he believes the United States would prefer a diplomatic resolution to the standoff.
Tensions on the Korean Peninsula have escalated in the past few months after North Korea launched missile tests – some successful, others not – that purportedly showed increasing sophistication in the nuclear state’s weapons program. If estimates of the Korean weapons program are correct, an increasing area of the world (including Canada) would be within range of the North’s missiles.
In response to missile tests in March, South Korea authorized the United States to begin building its Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) missile defence system in the country, which China – a country with fraught relations with the new Trump administration in Washington – characterized as a provocation.
Robert Litwak of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, who tracks this potentially deadly interplay, told The New York Times that what is playing out is “the Cuban missile crisis in slow motion.” But the slow-motion part appears to be speeding up. Mr. Trump and his aides have made it clear that the United States will no longer tolerate the incremental advances that have moved Korean leader Kim Jong-un so close to his goals.
Tempting as the analogies to Cuba may be, Mr. Kim is probably thinking of another nuclear negotiation – with Libya, in 2003. Its leader, Moammar Gadhafi, agreed to give up his nascent nuclear program in return for promises from the West of economic integration and acceptance. (It never really happened, and as soon as Libya’s populace turned against the dictator during the Arab Spring, the United States and its European and Arab allies drove him from power. Ultimately, he was pulled out of a ditch and shot.)
What the U.S. is doing
So far, U.S. President Donald Trump has played his hand – militarily, at least – as cautiously as his predecessors: A series of Situation Room meetings has come to the predictable conclusion that while the United States can be more aggressive, it should stop just short of confronting the North so frontally that it risks rekindling the Korean War, nearly 64 years after it came to an uneasy armistice. Mr. Trump has also escalated tough language on North Korea on social media:
FollowDonald J. Trump
North Korea is looking for trouble. If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them! U.S.A.
What Trump’s options are
The new president’s options appear limited in dealing with a challenge that has vexed his Oval Office predecessors. Most options fall into four categories: economic sanctions, covert action, diplomatic negotiations and military force.
North Korea is already among the most heavily sanctioned nations, facing numerous strictures to limit its ability to conduct commerce, participate in international finance and trade in weapons and other contraband. Despite those measures, “most analysts agree that U.S. and multilateral sanctions have not prevented North Korea from advancing its fledgling nuclear weapons capability,” said a report last year from the U.S. Congressional Research Service.
Reuters reported in April that Mr. Trump is focusing his North Korea strategy for now on tougher sanctions, possibly including an oil embargo, banning its airline, intercepting cargo ships and punishing Chinese banks doing business with Pyongyang, U.S. officials said. But the U.S. officials expressed doubt about how much farther China is willing to go: Beijing has long feared that economic collapse in North Korea would flood China with refugees and leave it to deal with chaos on the Korean peninsula.
The United States, with help from Israel, temporarily set back Iran’s nuclear program via a computer virus called Stuxnet, which destroyed thousands of centrifuges used to enrich uranium. The United States tried, but failed, to deploy a version of the Stuxnet virus to attack North Korea’s nuclear weapons program in 2009-2010, Reuters reported in 2015.
Another semi-covert approach would be for Washington to use electronic warfare or cyber attacks to disable North Korean missiles during or shortly after their launch. The high failure rate of the North’s missile tests has prompted speculation that the United States is already doing so.
ESTIMATED ACTIVE MILITARY AFFECTING BALANCE OF POWER IN NORTHEAST ASIA IN 2015, IN THOUSANDS
What Pyongyang is doing
Mr. Kim’s goals are twofold: shrinking a nuclear weapon to a size that can fit atop a long-range missile, and developing a hydrogen bomb, with up to 1,000 times the power than the Hiroshima-style weapons he has built so far. Those ambitions hit a major setback on April 16, when a midrange missile test apparently failed seconds after takeoff.
The actual nature of the North’s weapons program is hard to ascertain, given how carefully Mr. Kim and the military have managed information for propaganda purposes. The Kim family, which has ruled the country for three generations, has entrenched its rule by portraying the country as being relentlessly under siege, leaving its people unable to distinguish between daily hyperbole and the reality of an increasingly tense situation.
In Pyongyang – where war would mean untold horrors, where neighbourhoods could be reduced to rubble and tens of thousands of civilians could be killed – few people seem to care much at all, according to reports from Associated Press over the Easter weekend. After the North’s weekend birthday celebrations passed with no huge provocations like a nuclear test, people and the media in South Korea were more preoccupied Monday with domestic news such as the start of the official campaigning period for next month’s presidential election and a popular singer and actor’s wedding plans.
What Seoul is doing
As tensions with the North escalate, South Korea is grappling with a severe political crisis, with former president Park Geun-hye being indicted Monday for bribery, extortion, abuse of power and other high-profile corruption charges that could potentially send her to jail for life. Ms. Park was impeached in December, officially stripped of power in March and has been in a detention facility near Seoul since being arrested last month on allegations that she extorted from businesses, took bribes and committed other wrongdoing, all in collaboration with a longtime confidante.
Dealing with the crisis on the Korean Peninsula is a tough balancing act for acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn, who accompanied Mr. Pence on his visit to South Korea on Monday. Mr. Hwang reaffirmed the South’s commitment to go ahead with deploying THAAD, and expressed disappointment in Beijing for its retaliatory measures over the missile-defence system.
What China is doing
The recent surge in tensions on the Korean Peninsula finds Beijing on the outs with both North Korea, over the missile tests, and South Korea, over Seoul’s deploying of THAAD. Beijing says the advanced U.S. anti-missile system threatens its own security by allowing the U.S. to monitor flights and other activity in northeastern China. Beijing has retaliated against South Korean businesses, while its military has threatened to take unspecified action in response.
North Korea has repeatedly ignored China’s calls for denuclearization and other steps to calm tensions on the peninsula, and relations between the two are believed to have sunk to their lowest level in years. China remains North Korea’s chief source of fuel and food imports, but Pyongyang seems to have calculated that Beijing’s fears of a collapse of Kim Jong Un’s hard-line communist regime override any such snubs.
For now, China has called for a return to multi-sided talks that ended in a stalemate in 2009, during the rule of North Korea’s previous leader, Kim Jong-il. But many critics have yet to be convinced by Beijing’s insistence that its influence with Pyongyang has been exaggerated. The United States and its allies are putting China under pressure to do more in the form of economic sanctions against North Korea.
What Japan is doing
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Monday that Japan’s government is drawing up contingency plans in case a crisis on the Korean Peninsula sends an influx of refugees to Japan. Mr. Abe told a parliamentary session that the government is formulating measures including protecting foreigners, landing procedures, building and operating shelters, and screening asylum seekers. The government has been also working on evacuation plans for about 60,000 Japanese from South Korea in case of a crisis.
Japan’s government is considering dispatching commercial or military aircraft and vessels to South Korea in case Japanese nationals need to be evacuated. But critics say sending military aircraft and vessels is a sensitive issue for South Korea because of its bitter memories from the Japanese military aggression and colonization in the first half of 1900s.