North Korea has been slinging ballistic missiles like crazy this year, and making very worrisome technological progress. Yesterday, three more missiles, including a pair of short-range Scuds and a longer-ranged Nodong, were launched from a location south of Pyongyang. Kim Jong Un, aka “the Young General,” was in attendance to “lead” the drill. The missiles traveled as far as 360 miles—over half the width of the Korean Peninsula—before slamming into the sea off North Korea’s east coast.
Although these shorter-ranged ballistic missiles aren’t as headline-grabbing as their more advanced intermediate and long-range cousins that can threaten the entire region and beyond, they are more tactically relevant. During a time of war, the opening strike from the North would include a storm of ballistic missiles showering South Korea, with an aim to preemptively strike and putting out of commission, even if only temporarily, key military facilities.
North Korean state media reported:
"The drill was conducted by limiting the firing range under the simulated conditions of making preemptive strikes at ports and airfields in the operational theater in South Korea where the U.S. imperialists' nuclear war hardware is to be hurled. And it once again examined the operational features of the detonating devices of nuclear warheads mounted on the ballistic rockets at the designated altitude over the target area."
At its farthest point, the Demilitarized Zone is only about 310 miles from the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula—well within the missile's demonstrated 360-mile range.
By cratering the runways and causing general mayhem at airfields where American and South Korean tactical fighter and attack aircraft are based, North Korea could not only take them out of the fight during a time when they are most needed, but could leave them vulnerable to ground attack. This is why American and Korean combat aviators and ground crews train tirelessly to get as may armed jets in the air as fast as possible.
Naval vessels in port can't deploy as rapidly as tactical aircraft, which makes them vulnerable to this type of attack. However, a successful attack on docked ships—relatively small targets—comes down to a combination of luck and volume of fire for North Korea’s not-so-accurate ballistic missiles. Knocking out larger targets such as fuel storage farms is much easier proposition.
Conventionally armed ballistic missiles are one thing. What North Korea is talking about here, however, is detonating nuclear weapons over these installations, which would result in an immediate and catastrophic loss of combat power, not to mention life.
North Korea may have a miniaturized nuclear warhead design in the works, but that is far cry from proving that it can be delivered reliably via ballistic missile. Tests like this, where missile targeting capabilities and warhead fusing concepts can be tested, are part of the ongoing process to make Kim Jong Un’s nuclear ambitions a reliable front-line reality. With this sudden rash of rapid and high-profile testing—even of their most mysterious weapons—the timeline seems to be accelerating. This is clearly forcing South Koreans to develop its own ballistic missiles, and even submarines capable of launching them.
This launch was likely a response to South Korea's agreement with the US to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile system to the mountains about 170 miles southeast of Seoul.
THAAD should be able to shoot down any short to medium-range ballistic missile aimed at installations like Camp Humphreys or Osan Air Base and Kunsan Air Base. THAAD can also intercept missiles flying at higher trajectories and altitudes than other multi-role air defense systems, such as the MIM-104 Patriot. The Nodong-1, for instance, can fly much higher than its evolutionary predecessor, the Scud, though it sacrifices range. The fact that the Nodong flew shorter than its theoretical range during yesterday’s test may have been to evaluate a more survivable high-trajectory attack profile.
North Korea’s provocative missile launches are teh reason why the controversial THAAD was introduced to the Korean theater. Even so, Pyongyang absolutely abhors it, and the generals have already threatened to launch an attack. Yesterday’s ballistic missile test was likely North Korea’s way of reminding the South and the US that they can back up their threats.
Relations between North Korea and the US have continued on a downward spiral in recent days after Kim Jong Un himself was put under sanctions for the first time. Ten other regime officials and five state entities were also included in the new sanction regime. The US's justification is widespread human rights abuses. An official inside the Obama Administration told Politico.com:
“It is not an easy thing to identify those responsible for these kinds of abuses within the North Korean system. This is not a government that publishes a phone directory of its personnel or an organizational chart. It sends a message to people within the North Korean regime... that if you become involved in abuses like running concentration camps or hunting down defectors we will know who you are."
All foreign assets within US jurisdiction will be frozen as part of the sanctions initiative. What type of actual impact this will have on Kim and his inner circle is highly questionable, but still Pyongyang was not happy with the move calling it an “open declaration of war against DPRK" and "the worst crime that can never be pardoned.”
Maybe most concerning is that North Korea cut the only direct communication channel left with the US as part of their protest, a dangerous move considering the high-tension and massive amount of military hardware staged on a hair trigger throughout the Peninsula.
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