Asia-Pacific / North Korea

Military Bluster and North Korean Escalation

On the morning of April 15, 2017, on the one hundred and fifth anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s founder and the grandfather of current Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, North Korea conducted a missile test, the next in a long line of recent test provocations. The missile was launched from a submarine base near the port city of Sinpo and exploded almost immediately, dealing Kim Jong-un an embarrassing blow. The explosion carried a sting of failure, because the launch was timed to show strength in the face of a supposedly approaching United States aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Carl Vinson. But just as the North Korean missile launch failed, so too did the U.S. threat of missile interception.

The U.S. Navy reports that the U.S.S. Carl Vinson was sailing through the Sunda Strait in Indonesia at the time of North Korea’s missile launch, contradicting White House reports earlier in the week that stated the carrier would be in the Sea of Japan. While not devastating, the broken promise does weaken U.S. credibility in its assertions about the effectiveness of the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense Systems (BMDS) aboard many U.S. aircraft carriers. The missile defense systems have proven successful in multiple tests for the U.S. and Japan; however, even if accurate, the standard missiles fired from the defense system require a carrier to be within a relatively short range from the launch site, which was not the case in the most recent incident. Put simply, the BMDS cannot protect against a North Korean attack if it is not located not where the Navy says it is. Furthermore, provocations like this by the Trump administration could lead to disastrous consequences for U.S. allies, such as Japan and South Korea, if Kim Jong-un overreacts in order to avoid looking weak.

To further counter North Korea’s nuclear threat, the U.S. has also maintained its plan to install a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile defense system in South Korea and continue the cyber-espionage campaign initiated by President Obama. Although a North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test is postponed due to North Korea’s recently failed missile launch, North Korean ICBM capability is likely unavoidable and should be particularly concerning given recent reports that they will soon test a hydrogen, or thermonuclear, bomb. It is up to the U.S. to spur China to enact the sanctions put forward by the U.N. Security Council, and to either open multilateral negotiations to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, or to develop a missile defense system that offers a credible deterrent.