The Narrow Road to the Deep North
The Narrow Road to the Deep North
North Korea ramped up its nuclear threats on Wednesday, boasting of its ability to deliver miniaturized warheads on high-precision long range rockets — a claim denied by the United States.
At the same time, the North denounced “reckless” remarks made in Seoul this week by US Secretary of State John Kerry, and cancelled an invitation to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to visit a joint industrial zone on its side of the border with South Korea.
Pyongyang has been flexing its advancing military muscle of late, most recently announcing it had successfully test-fired a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM).
On Wednesday its powerful National Defence Commission (NDC) claimed that the country’s nuclear arsenal was already highly developed.
“It has been a long time since we began miniaturising and diversifying our means of nuclear strike,” the commission said in a statement carried by the North’s official KCNA news agency.
“We have also reached the stage where the highest accuracy rate is guaranteed, not only for short- and medium-range missiles but long-range missiles as well,” the NDC said.
Washington rejected the nuclear claim.
“Our assessment of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities has not changed. We do not think that they have that capacity” to miniaturise weapons, a US National Security Council spokesman told AFP.
But the spokesman agreed Pyongyang was “working on developing a number of long-range missiles, including intercontinental ballistic missiles, that could eventually threaten our allies and the homeland”.
Reducing the size of a nuclear warhead to the point where it can fit on a missile would be a major leap forward in establishing a genuine deterrent, and Pyongyang has claimed progress with miniaturisation before.
In January the South Korean Defence Ministry said it believed the North’s ability to miniaturise a nuclear device had reached a “significant” level. The top US homeland security commander, Admiral William Gortney, said last month the North was already capable of mounting a warhead on a missile.
But other senior officials in both countries have questioned such assessments, and independent analysts on Wednesday stressed that the North’s claims were often overblown.
“There are differences between their statements and their actual operational reality,” Daniel Pinkston, a Seoul-based senior researcher of the International Crisis Group, told AFP.
“Some of it is bluster or exaggeration and maybe for internal audiences, and some of it is probably also for external audiences in an effort to test and to see if they can use systems for blackmail or coercion,” he said.
Cho Han-Bum, an analyst at the Korea Institute for National Unification, said Pyongyang was “too cash-strapped” to perfect such intricate technology as miniaturising a warhead.
“I find the claim hard to believe,” he said.
Expanding nuclear program
Experts have voiced similar doubts over the recent SLBM test, suggesting it was probably not submarine-launched at all, but likely fired from a submerged barge.
And it was probably an “ejection test” in which the missile is launched underwater, breaks the surface and then falls back after a few seconds of partial fuel burn.
But scepticism over the North’s claims for its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile capability are heavily outweighed by genuine concern at the expansion of both programmes.
A recent report by US researchers warned that North Korea could, in a worst-case scenario, possess 100 nuclear bombs arms by 2020.
North Korea carried out nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013 and has an extremely active ballistic missile development programme, even if expert opinion is split on how much progress it has made.
During his visit to Seoul Kerry had denounced Kim Jong-Un’s “egregious” leadership, saying he had fuelled regional tensions with repeated “provocative, destabilising and repressive actions”.
The North Korean Foreign Ministry responded Wednesday, calling Kerry’s comments those of “a loser admitting the total failure” of US policy towards Pyongyang.
Separately Wednesday, Pyongyang cancelled without explanation an invitation for Ban, who is also in Seoul, to visit the Kaesong joint industrial area which lies 10 kilometers over the inter-Korean border.
Had Thursday’s visit gone ahead, Ban would have become the first UN secretary-general to set foot in the isolated state for more than 20 years, since Boutros Boutros-Ghali in 1993.
“This decision by Pyongyang is deeply regrettable,” the UN chief, a former foreign minister of South Korea, told a forum in Seoul.
“However, I as the secretary-general of the United Nations, will not spare any efforts to encourage (North Korea) to work with the international community for peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and beyond.”
Speaking at an Asian leadership forum in Seoul on Tuesday, Ban had warned that continued North Korean provocation risked fuelling tensions and a possible arms race across the region.
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North Korea fired two missiles into the sea and vowed “merciless” retaliation on Monday as the US and South Korea kicked off joint military drills, denounced by Pyongyang as recklessly confrontational.
The annual exercises always trigger a surge in military tensions and warlike rhetoric on the divided peninsula, and analysts saw the North’s missile tests as a prelude to a concerted campaign of sabre rattling.
“And if there is a particularly sharp escalation, we could see the North orchestrating some kind of clash on the maritime border,” said Jeung Young-Tae, an analyst at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul.
The missile launches came with a stern warning from the nuclear-armed North Korean People’s Army (KPA) that this year’s military drills would bring the peninsula “towards the brink of war.”
The South Korean defence ministry said the two Scud missiles were fired from the western port city of Nampo and fell into the sea off the east coast, a distance of nearly 500km.
UN resolutions prohibit any ballistic missile test by North Korea and ministry spokesperson Kim Min-Seok said Pyongyang appeared intent on triggering a “security crisis”.
“We will respond sternly and strongly to any provocation,” Kim told reporters.
The Japanese government said it had issued a strong protest to the North given the danger such missile launches posed to aviation and shipping.
Missile tests have long been a preferred North Korean method of expressing anger and displeasure with what it views as confrontational behaviour by the South and its allies.
‘Brink of war’
“The situation on the Korean peninsula is again inching close to the brink of a war,” a spokesperson for the KPA General Staff was quoted as saying Monday by the North’s official KCNA news agency.
“The only means to cope with the aggression and war by the US imperialists and their followers is neither dialogue nor peace. They should be dealt with only by merciless strikes.”
North Korea has threatened attacks, including nuclear strikes, on the US before, although it has never demonstrated a missile capability that would encompass the US mainland.
The largest element of the two South Korea-US drills that began Monday is Foal Eagle, an eight-week exercise involving air, ground and naval field training, with around 200 000 Korean and 3 700 US troops.
The other is a week-long, largely computer-simulated joint drill called Key Resolve.
Seoul and Washington insist the exercises are defence-based in nature, but they are regularly condemned by Pyongyang as provocative rehearsals for invasion.
The KPA spokesperson said North Korea would respond in kind to any act of conventional, nuclear or cyber warfare.
“In case even a single shell drops on any place over which the sovereignty of the DPRK (North Korea) is exercised, it will promptly take counteractions,” he said
North Korea has carried out three nuclear tests, in 2006, 2009 and 2013.
In January, the North offered a moratorium on further tests if this year’s joint drills were cancelled, a proposal rejected by Washington as an “implicit threat” to carry out a fourth atomic detonation.
Analyst Jeung said Pyongyang was unlikely to conduct a fourth test just to protest against the exercises.
“Nuclear tests carry more significance than that,” he said, noting that the North’s testing schedule was primarily driven by technical development.
“On the other hand, there is the chance of a mid- or long-range missile test,” Jeung told AFP.
“I would say that a demonstration that it could deliver a nuclear warhead would be more threatening to the world than an actual nuclear test,” he added.
A new research report by US experts published last week estimated that North Korea could be on track to have an arsenal of 100 nuclear weapons by 2020.
In a further sign of rising tensions, the North Korean state-run website, Uriminzokkiri, warned Monday of a fierce response to any attempt by South Korean activists to float anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border by balloon.
“The response might not just be a few shots of gunfire but cannons or missiles,” the website said.