TSG IntelBrief: The Serious Threat of North Korea
February 13, 2017
Bottom Line Up Front:
• On February 12, North Korea conducted a test launch of a medium-range ballistic missile, in violation of UN resolutions.
• North Korea conducted the test after U.S. President Donald Trump used Twitter to warn Pyongyang against such a launch.
• While fears of terrorism dominate public discussions over national security, serious threats like nuclear-capable and unpredictable North Korea continue to worsen.
• Foreign policy issues such as North Korea, the Syrian civil war, and Russian action in Ukraine will frustrate the new U.S. administration’s stated preference for unilateral and bilateral action.
Continuing the strategy employed against previous U.S. administrations, North Korea is testing the new Trump administration over another violation of UN resolutions regarding its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Indeed, there is nothing new about North Korea conducting banned missile or nuclear tests. However, the threat posed by North Korea is not static, and the belligerent country’s capabilities have advanced as President Trump has used Twitter as a means of unorthodox diplomacy—running up against Pyongyang’s sensitivity to perceived humiliation. The risk of escalating tensions—and perhaps even conflict—from these developments is quite real.
On February 12, North Korea tested a new solid-fuel ballistic missile. The medium-range missile flew over 300 miles, and marked the latest development in North Korea’s program to miniaturize a nuclear warhead and place it on a ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States. To date, Pyongyang has not achieved these two goals, but the latest test shows it is making real advances; the country already poses a serious threat to both South Korea and Japan.
The timing of the test was deliberate, coming as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with President Trump. During the recent U.S. presidential campaign, President Trump publicly questioned the value the U.S. receives in its defense treaty with Japan. As president-elect, Trump very publicly warned North Korea on Twitter in early January over the consequences of a possible ballistic test, tweeting ‘it won’t happen.’
The issue of the most recent North Korean missile test presents a challenge to the new administration’s preference for unilateral or bilateral problem solving. Despite President Trump’s consistent criticism of the UN and cumbersome multilateral talks, the U.S. requested an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council as a result of the test, as did Japan and South Korea. In addition, China—the country with the most leverage over North Korea—has already stated the test was unacceptable. China’s leverage is often overstated, however, and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un has pressed ahead with banned tests despite Beijing’s opposition.
For Seoul and Tokyo, the latest North Korean antagonisms are more than a test of the new U.S. administration; they represent a real and present threat at a massive scale. The solid-fuel missile test fired on February 12 can be fueled quicker than a liquid-fuel model, providing less notice or indication of a launch. Despite its belligerence and clear willingness to push the limits, Pyongyang has tended to behave as a rational actor in the past; North Korean leaders seem to be aware that launching an actual attack against South Korea or any of its other enemies would be suicidal, and therefore it has not done so up to this point. Still, the reality of the threat posed by North Korea has changed, and therefore so must the usual responses. North Korean capabilities are beginning to align with its bellicose rhetoric and stated intentions, a development that could have potentially devastating consequences.
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