North Korea’s young dictator may be creating a crisis atmosphere as part of a strategy to force the U.S. and other nations to recognize his nation as a nuclear weapons power.
U.S. and South Korean officials said North Korea could conduct another nuclear or missile test as soon as today, although they cautioned that the reclusive regime frequently makes military preparations that are visible to spy satellites to mask its real intentions.
A missile test “could be imminent,” Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said yesterday on CNN.
Leader Kim Jong Un’s motivation for his threatening rhetoric and military brinkmanship is a basic question for U.S. and South Korean officials as they develop a counter-strategy to avert war on the peninsula without emboldening the repressive North Korean regime and accepting its nuclear weapons.
“North Korea wants to be designated a nuclear power, which would be a great victory for Kim, allowing him to hype nationalism and demonstrate regime empowerment,” Bruce Bennett, a defense analyst at the Rand Corp., a Santa Monica, California-based research group, said yesterday in a telephone briefing for reporters.
North Korea wants to be recognized as a nuclear weapons state and “thinks we will blink,” Joseph De Trani, a former head of the National Counterproliferation Center, part of the U.S. intelligence community, said yesterday in a briefing at the Wilson Center, a Washington policy research group.
Some U.S. intelligence officials agree. They say Kim may have concluded from the examples of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, who abandoned his nuclear program, and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, whose nuclear facilities were destroyed by Israeli air attacks, that a credible nuclear and missile arsenal is necessary to ensure his family regime’s survival.
While there is little credible knowledge of Kim’s thinking, his rhetoric and behavior suggest that he may have additional goals, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they have access to classified intelligence.
Among those goals may be demonstrating his mettle to the older military leaders who surround him and to the new, more nationalistic leaders of South Korea and Japan, as well as providing photos and other fodder for North Korea’s propaganda apparatus.
Navy Admiral Samuel Locklear, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, told Congress yesterday that “our observation is that he’s unpredictable, more unpredictable” than his late father, Kim Jong Il. “His father and his grandfather, as far as I could see, always figured into their provocation cycle an ‘off ramp’ of how to get out of it, and it’s not clear to me that he has thought through how to get out of it.”
“This is what makes this scenario, I think, particularly challenging,” Locklear said.
North Korea’s threats to carry out pre-emptive nuclear strikes against the U.S. and South Korea have stoked a crisis atmosphere. Foreigners in South Korea could be in danger and should prepare for evacuation in case of war, the regime’s official Korean Central News Agency said yesterday. The statement is “psychological warfare,” South Korean President Park Geun Hye’s spokeswoman, Kim Haing, said by phone.
The tensions have implications for U.S. companies with operations in South Korea. General Motors Co. is “making contingency plans for the safety of our employees” in South Korea to the extent that it can, Chief Executive Officer Dan Akerson said in a CNBC interview on April 4. The company has five plants in South Korea, where it builds 145,000 vehicles for domestic sales and 1.3 million for export, he said.
GM had $8.91 billion in sales in South Korea last year, the most among U.S.-based publicly traded companies with a market value of $1 billion or more, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The Detroit-based automaker was followed by Qualcomm Inc., the San Diego-based seller of semiconductors for mobile phones, with $4.2 billion, and National Oilwell Varco Inc., the Houston-based maker of oilfield equipment, with $3.12 billion.
South Korean shares rose 0.1 percent yesterday, after six days of declines for the benchmark Kospi index. The won was little changed at 1,139.33, near its lowest level in eight months.
The U.S. and South Korea have said they’ve seen no unusual military movements suggesting preparations for war. The U.S. is “not encouraging Americans to take any special travel preparations,” Patrick Ventrell, a State Department spokesman, told reporters yesterday in Washington.
While there is the risk of unintended escalation, security policy analysts such as David Shlapak of Rand say that it’s unlikely Kim wants war.
“We really don’t have any evidence that Kim Jong Un is really nuts, seeking to throw away his country and, from his point of view, more importantly his regime in some grand gesture against South Korea and the United States,” he said yesterday.
In addition to a possible missile launch, North Korea is ready to conduct a fourth underground nuclear test at its Punggye-ri site, after carrying out its third on Feb. 12, according to South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min Seok.
North Korea can look at the examples of India and Pakistan, which in 1998 tested nuclear devices. In defiance of international pressure, they’ve since assembled arsenals that have brought the nuclear balance of terror to the subcontinent, pointing to a risk of an Northeast Asian nuclear arms race.
Unlike those nations, North Korea was a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which bars nuclear weapons development, but it withdrew in 2003, citing U.S. threats such as President George W. Bush’s 2002 “axis of evil” speech.
North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles poses a “direct threat” to the U.S. and its allies, Locklear said. The situation, fanned by hostile rhetoric from Kim’s regime, “creates an environment marked by the potential for miscalculation” and military escalation, he said in written testimony for a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
In response to questions from lawmakers yesterday, Locklear confirmed that North Korea has moved at least one of its medium-range Musudan missiles to its eastern coast. He said the missile has a range of 3,000 miles (4,827 kilometers) to 3,500 miles (5,633 kilometers) -- enough to reach Guam, though not Hawaii; Anchorage or Fairbanks, Alaska; or the U.S. mainland.
Locklear said the use of “road-mobile systems,” that make missiles transportable, such as the Musudan, has become “a problem for our intelligence” because it’s now more difficult to “understand what’s going on and to see it, and to be able to respond to it.”
The U.S. has defenses in place to shoot down a North Korean missile, he said.
“I believe we have a credible ability to defend the homeland, to defend Hawaii, defend Guam, to defend our forward-deployed forces and defend our allies,” he said.
Senator John McCain pressed Locklear on the circumstances under which the U.S. should intercept a North Korean missile. The admiral said he would support doing so in defense of the U.S. or its allies.
Asked by the Arizona Republican whether the U.S. should intercept a North Korean missile “no matter where the intended target is,” Locklear said, “I would not recommend that.”
American officials are looking to China, North Korea’s biggest trading partner, to use its economic and political clout to rein in Kim and prevent an armed conflict. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry travels to Asia this week to meet leaders from South Korea, China and Japan.