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An unpretty picture

Dec 07,2019
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U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, right, are engaging in a war of nerves in the run up to the year’s end. North Korea tested a super-large multiple rocket launcher, center, on Nov. 28. [JOONGANG ILBO]
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Kim Min-seok
The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.

North Korea test-fired more missiles this year than in any other year. Including its test of a “super-large” multiple rocket launcher, which could be considered a missile test, the North launched 27 missiles in 13 tests. And that’s more than the 24 missiles tested in 2016 and 21 missiles tested in 2017. In 2018, as Pyongyang engaged in summit talks with Washington, it halted missile tests. The regime’s missile development has grown impressively over the years. It mastered the development of almost every kind of missile, and is now preparing to put them to actual use. The concrete platforms that North Korea is installing throughout its country to use as missile launch pads prove just that. It takes time to fire a missile from a transporter erector launcher (TEL) because the missile needs to settle horizontally first. But from flat concrete floors, missiles can be launched right away, and in that way, North Korea can fire missiles before getting attacked by South Korean and American troops. Tensions between the North and the United States are rising, and the source of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s confidence is believed to be his nuclear-tipped missiles.

Washington has grown jittery after realizing North Korea began constructing concrete missile launch pads. American surveillance planes like the RC-135V, EP-3E, RC-135W, E-8C and U-2 have been flying over the Korean Peninsula recently with unusual frequency, some of which are normally used during wartime. It appears the United States is trying to make sure that any move from North Korea involving an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launch, weapons transport or military facility reinforcement does not go undetected, given that Pyongyang usually carries out such activities when the country is off the radar of American surveillance satellites. It seems both countries are preparing for military operations.

Things aren’t looking pretty.

North Korea might test-fire an ICBM if the denuclearization talks with the United States fall apart. Ri Thae-song, a first vice minister of the North Korean Foreign Ministry working on U.S. affairs, warned this week that their year-end deadline was nearing, and that it was up to the United States to decide what Pyongyang’s “Christmas gift” to Washington would be. North Korea test-fired a Hwasong-14 ICBM on July 4, 2017, in time for the U.S. Independence Day celebrations, and shortly afterwards, U.S. President Donald Trump called Kim “little Rocket Man,” while threatening to destroy the country. Washington’s red line is an ICBM launch, and if Kim dares to cross it, Trump could respond with a military option, as he recently hinted.

Trump said Tuesday in London that he was prepared to use military force against the North if he had to. Not long after, Pak Jong-chon, chief of the North Korean People’s Army’s General Staff, retorted that if the United States uses force against the North, the regime will take “prompt corresponding actions at any level,” stressing that any military action will be met with a military response. On Tuesday, North Korea’s state media featured Kim visiting Samjiyon County in the foothills of Mount Paektu, which he often visits before making some kind of a major decision. A plenary session of the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Committee has also been called for the end of the year. That means if Pyongyang fails to come to terms with Washington, it could decide on a new path to take, one that possibly includes armed conflict. A retired South Korean general who previously served as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency surmised the North to be preparing for an ICBM launch.

How far has North Korea’s missile technology actually reached? According to Kwon Yong-soo, a missile expert and former professor at the Korea National Defense University, the North mastered key ICBM technology by 2016, and in November 2017, tested a Hwasong-15 ICBM that’s capable of traveling 13,000 kilometers (8,000 miles). The Hwasong-15’s flight ability took Washington by surprise, but the material used to protect the missile’s warhead appeared to have been too weak because it burned several kilometers above the East Sea as the missile re-entered the atmosphere. But Kwon says the North would appear to have no problem setting off a nuclear warhead 10 kilometers or higher above New York.

When a nuclear warhead goes off at such a high altitude, it does not have any direct nuclear effect on the ground. But it emits powerful electromagnetic pulses, which can completely paralyze electronic devices such as computers and telecommunication systems across vast areas. Kwon predicted the regime by now could have aced re-entry technology to be capable of hitting ground targets. He also guessed that the North may have developed ICBMs capable of carrying multiple nuclear warheads, which would mean Pyongyang could simultaneously hit various locations across the U.S. mainland. That could be North Korea’s Christmas gift for the United States, which is why the United States is not taking the North’s warning too lightly.

In terms of the North’s tactical capabilities, it is known to have developed various sorts of tactical missiles lately, such as the KN-23 Iskander ballistic missile; the “newly-developed large-caliber multiple launch guided rocket system;” another ballistic missile system akin to the U.S. MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile System, or Atacms; and the super-large multiple rocket launcher. The KN-23 does not follow the common arc-shaped trajectory of other ballistic missiles. It travels at a low altitude of 50 kilometers or below, and as it approaches its target, performs a pull-up maneuver before taking a final dive, making the projectile difficult to detect by military radar. By the time radar does detect it, there won’t be enough time for interception. The KN-23 can be topped with a nuclear weapon. Given its maximum range of 690 kilometers, this means the KN-23 can target the Japanese city of Iwakuni, where the U.S. F-35B stealth fighter jet is deployed.

The North’s newly-developed large-caliber multiple launch guided rocket system is just as intimidating because it can fire multiple missiles at once, all at a low altitude of 30 kilometers or below. The 300-millimeter launcher system is equipped with a guiding function and has a range of 250 kilometers or more, which means it can target U.S. military bases in Osan and Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi. A multiple rocket launcher that the North recently tested has an estimated caliber of 600 millimeters, can consecutively fire four missiles and can travel as far as 400 kilometers, covering all of South Korea. Both systems are impossible to intercept.

Professor Kwon said the North might launch a mix of its four new low-altitude missile systems with other conventional missiles in case of war, which we could not shoot down with our U.S.-led Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) antimissile system or Patriot missiles.

The Scud-ER missile and KN-18 precision ballistic missile that the North tested in 2016 and 2017 are also very menacing. During those years, the North tested three Scud-ER missiles and four KN-18 missiles from a highway in Hwanghae Province, and they mostly flew about a thousand kilometers before splashing into the East Sea. The KN-18 tested in May 2017 traveled 450 kilometers and landed at a point only seven meters away from its planned target. Analysts believe North Korea’s Scud-ER and KN-18 missiles were designed to target American aircraft carriers, like China’s DF-21D carrier-killer. The Pukguksong-3 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) that the North tested last October from a barge was a game-changer. The Pukguksong-3 SLBM can be tipped with a nuclear warhead, and if the North manages to carry the missile on a submarine and sail out to the Pacific Ocean, this means Guam, Hawaii and the U.S. mainland would all fall under risk of an attack.

Trump’s recent mentioning of military options and North Korea’s statement of prompt corresponding actions are raising tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Chances for North Korean denuclearization barely exist. It seems that the possibility of a military clash is higher. Prof. Park Hwee-rhak of Kookmin University’s Graduate School of Politics and Leadership says the North may threaten South Korea with nuclear weapons in attempting to disturb South Korea’s market, force unification under a federal system and withdraw American troops from the peninsula. Seoul must ardently prepare for various scenarios — but I have strong feelings it’s not even started.

JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 6, Page 26