Today, two North Korean Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missiles have been withdrawn from a launch site and sent to a storage facility, a U.S. defense official confirmed. Musudan missiles have never been tested publicly, but are estimated to have a range of up to 4,000 km, and are capable of reaching India, Central Asia, and some U.S. bases in the Pacific. The move could mean that North Korea no longer poses the imminent launch threat we’ve all been desensitized to. The news arrives a day before South Korean President Park Geun-Hye will meet with President Obama in Washington on her first state visit to the U.S., where North Korea’s aggression will be a major focus.
Although Pentagon spokesman George Little described the missile withdrawal to reporters on Monday as a “provocation pause,” the question remains: what does the government really think of Kim Jong Un’s nuclear shenanigans?
President Obama and President Park are determined to collaborate on a credible nuclear deterrence strategy, but a recent annual Pentagon report seems to suggest that even though the U.S. takes North Korea seriously, it ain’t afraid.
On May 2, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel delivered a Pentagon report to Congress titled, “Military and Security Developments Involving the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea 2012.” This annual briefing, developed by the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy and the Defense Intelligence Agency, is the authoritative statement from the Department of Defense on the state of North Korean security affairs. According to the report, the successful missile launch last December and last month’s belligerence underscore “the threat to regional stability and U.S. national security posed by North Korea.” It’s most recent nuclear test, in February, led to stricter UN sanctions and caused Kim Jong Un to intensify threats.
The report said, “Although North Korea is unlikely to attack on a scale that it assesses would risk the survival of its government by inviting overwhelming counterattacks by the ROK or the United States, we do not know how North Korea calculates this threshold of behavior.” It’s understood that an actual North Korean nuclear offensive would lead to the regime’s downfall, but developed nations have much more to lose, and this is precisely the leverage Kim Jong Un aims to capitalize on.
Unfortunately for Kim Jong Un, the Pentagon has explained that it believes with “moderate confidence” that North Korea has only nuclear weapons that it could deliver with low “reliability.” It went on to say that the space launch from February “does not test a re-entry vehicle (RV), without which North Korea cannot deliver a weapon to target from an ICBM.”
Even China is rolling their eyes, with Premier Xi Jinping stating at a forum in Hainan last month, “[No one] should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gain.” Analysts and officials note that he was likely referring to Kim Jong Un. Professor Ming Chu-cheng of National Taiwan University offers this explanation:
“There is likely (to be) hidden discontent between China and North Korea. The North may be trying to show it’s displeased with the Chinese regime, but it cannot publicly show it. Therefore, it’s hands fight against South Korea and its mouth threatens the USA, but actually its eyes are staring at the CCP. Strictly speaking, this is to blackmail the CCP.”
North Korea-China relations offer insight into the ways Kim Jong Un is trying to portray himself as a truly new and improved leader. After relations were strained due to North Korea’s third nuclear test in February, China planned to send several senior officials to Pyongyang, but Kim Jong Un declined the introduction, showing that he is less dependent on Beijing than his father was. Xi Jinping, a seasoned politician more than twice the age of Kim Jong Un, however, is unimpressed.
Here’s hoping Kim Jong Un just chills out this week and doesn’t disappoint anyone else.