Is N. Korea raising peninsula tensions in bid for US negotiations?

Posted on : 2017-08-11 16:12 KST Modified on : 2017-08-11 16:12 KST
Threatens “Guam missile strike” for second straight day, citing UN sanctions, South Korea-US military exercises
A gathering in support of a “government statement” objecting to the recently passed UN Security Council Resolution 2371 sanctioning North Korea was held on Aug. 9 at Pyongyang’s Kim Il-sung Square
A gathering in support of a “government statement” objecting to the recently passed UN Security Council Resolution 2371 sanctioning North Korea was held on Aug. 9 at Pyongyang’s Kim Il-sung Square

North Korea turned up the heat on the US for a second straight day with references to an “enveloping strike” on Guam, which is home to Andersen Air Force Base and other major US military bases. Ramping up the threat from a statement the day before in the name of its People’s Army Strategic Force, a statement on Aug. 10 in the name of the force’s commander Gen. Kim Rak-gyom went as far as to describe the ballistic missile’s flight path, distance, and time and the point of impact. A war of nerves with little precedent is now raging between North Korea and the US.

North Korea’s description of its “enveloping strike” on Guam was unusually specific. In his announcement, Kim said four Hwasong-12 rockets would “pass through the sky over Japan’s Shimane, Hiroshima, and Kochi Prefectures, flying for 1,065 seconds and a distance of 3,356.7 km before making impact in the waters 30–40 km around Guam.” With details suggesting he had already obtained estimates on how the missile launch would proceed, the warning rang as a message to the US that it would come up with the same figures if it performed its own calculations. The mention of the impact site as “30–40 km around Guam” appeared meant to stress that it would fall in international rather than territorial waters.

North Korea has given two rationales for its threat of an enveloping strike on Guam. First, it claims the US is “raising the level of omnidirectional sanctions and military threat [against North Korea] to the maximum.” This appeared to be a reference to newly passed UN Security Council Resolution 2371 and the Ulchi-Freedom Guardian joint military exercises that begin on Aug. 21.

Second, it referred to the “irrational thought processes” of the US Commander-in-Chief, which made “his political course impossible to gauge.” The claim is that the planned strike near Guam is a response to aggressive rhetoric from US President Donald Trump, including his recent “fire and fury” remarks while at a resort.

For now, the likelihood of North Korea actually launching a Hwasong-12 toward Guam appears slim. It is well aware that if it were to actually threaten US territory, the US would be obliged to take military action in response. The final sentence in the Aug. 10 announcement, which said North Korea was “continuing to observe the US’s words and actions,” appeared to reflect this situation.

But the situation could change if Washington keeps up its heated response and strategic assets such as the B-1B long-range strategic bomber are deployed in the upcoming joint military exercises. In that case, Pyongyang may feel the need to prove it does have the capability to strike against Guam.

Some experts suggested that if North Korea does attempt a strike, it could launch a missile over the West (Yellow) Sea toward international waters near the Philippines – as it did with its Unha-3 launch in Dec. 2012 – instead of directly targeting Guam. This way, it could show off the Hwasong-12’s flight and strike capabilities while avoiding a head-on clash with the US. Also, a successful normal-angle launch of the Hwasong-12 after its previous high-angle test launch could offer indirect proof that the firing range of the ICBM-level Hwasong-14 could also approach estimates when launched at a normal angle.

North Korea also released a timeline on Aug. 10 that included completion of the Guam enveloping strike plan by mid-August and a report to leader Kim Jong-un, after which it would go into launch standby while awaiting his orders. The aim appeared to be to raise tensions further by splitting the threat level up into stages. In particular, it said it was “considering sharing information about this historic enveloping strike against Guam with the [North Korean] people” – a message apparently meant to stress that the schedule could indeed be put into practice.

“With its talk about an enveloping strike on Guam, North Korea is basically giving the US an ultimatum demanding that it recognize the North’s practical capabilities,” said Institute for National Security Strategy supervising researcher Cho Seong-ryoul.

“The North’s intention may be to take things to the brink of catastrophe to get direct negotiations with the US,” Cho added.

“But the possibility that things really could escalate into a catastrophe means there will need to be active efforts at mediation by the South Korean government and other countries involved.”

By Jung In-hwan, staff reporter

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