TSG IntelBrief: North Korea Takes Center Stage
April 26, 2017

North Korea Takes Center Stage

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Bottom Line Up Front:

• On April 26, the White House will host all 100 U.S. senators for an unusual briefing on North Korea.

• On April 25, a U.S. nuclear submarine arrived in Busan, South Korea, ahead of a Carrier Strike Group, which is traveling to the region in part to send a message to Pyongyang.

• On April 28, the UN Security Council will discuss additional sanctions against North Korea, which to date have been ineffective.

• It remains uncertain if the present intense focus on North Korea will lead to any dialogue and change, or rather to rising tensions and conflict.

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The consequences of any armed conflict on the Korean Peninsula—which would involve both Koreas, China, Japan, and the United States—are so severe that the long-running tensions have generated a week of the highest-level global attention on one of the world’s most isolated countries. While North Korea has used provocations in the past as a means of getting attention, renewed dialogue, and concessions, the current level of tensions has moved beyond the provocation stage and could very likely reach the true global crisis scale if not addressed effectively. Even for a decades-long relationship between Pyongyang, its neighbors, and the West that has seen its share of dangerous theatrics and real military threats, the current threat level is remarkable.

The number of high-profile and high-level events this week concerning North Korea is truly significant. After weeks of message-sending—and some confusion—the first ships of the USS Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group are expected to arrive in South Korea this week. The group will conduct large-scale and high-profile joint operations with the South Korean navy. Adding to the mix, the USS Michigan, a powerful Ohio-class submarine, docked in the port of Busan, South Korea, on April 25. 

North Korea has reacted to the planned arrival of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier with customary over-the-top bluster—threatening to sink the USS Carl Vinson—that has taken on a new level of menace given the dramatically increased tensions. Whereas past hyperbolic North Korean threats might have generated eye-rolls—in addition to increased security measures—the tensions between the U.S. and North Korea have moved well beyond theoretical concern and bemusement. For its part, North Korea held a large artillery display to mark the anniversary of the founding of its military on April 25, as it has done almost every year. The cumulative weight of so many opposing military assets all posturing for a maximum show of force can easily spiral out of control—whether by accident or misread intentions.

On April 26, the White House will host a very unusual and high-profile visit by all 100 senators for a briefing about the North Korean threat. The briefing will be led by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, as well as Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford. Such meetings are normally held at the Capitol in rooms designed for classified briefings, called Secure Compartmented Information Facilities (SCIF). Normally, the briefers—to include Cabinet-level officials—would travel to the Capitol to provide the updates, rather than have the entire U.S. Senate travel to the White House. Regardless of the unusual logistics, a joint briefing by all four of these senior administration officials to the entire Senate—at a time when ongoing U.S. operations in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan are also receiving considerable attention—demonstrates the level of mounting concern over North Korea. 

On April 28, the UN Security Council will hold a meeting to discuss the possibility of imposing additional sanctions against North Korea for its most recent violations concerning ballistic missile testing. North Korea has been under sanctions of some sort for years, yet it has still steadily advanced both its nuclear weapons capabilities as well as the all-important means of accurate ballistic delivery. As such, Pyongyang represents a troubling reminder that economic sanctions—while a very important tool for the Security Council—are less than effective when the targeted country considers the pursuit and attainment of the sanctioned activity to be far more important than the costs. Even China, which has the most leverage over Pyongyang—though perhaps not as much as the U.S. hopes—is frustrated with North Korea’s recent provocations and its relentless pursuit of a nuclear capability, which Pyongyang believes will render it immune to military threats. China has warned both North Korea and the U.S. from taking military action against the other, and is pushing for dialogue to supplant the rhetoric.

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