Don't be surprised by North Korea's missiles. Kim Jong Un is doing what he said he would.
Two U.S. nuclear-capable strategic bombers conducted a joint operation with South Korean air force fighter jets on Aug. 31. (Reuters) August 31 at 9:44 AM
TOKYO â" Armchair experts on North Korea â" and a fair few who watch from their desks, too â" like to write off Kim Jong Un as unpredictable. Who knows what this nuclear-armed madman might do next, the refrain goes.
U.S. warplanes conducted a bombing drill Thursday close to the border that separates the two Koreas, as if to intimidate the hard-to-read leader.
But anyone whoâs surprised by the past monthâs events â" from North Koreaâs threat to fire missiles close to Guam, to the actual launch of a missile over Japan â" hasnât been paying attention.
For Pyongyangâs actions have been clearly telegraphed.
Take the Aug. 9 statement from the Northâs official Kore an Central News Agency. The armyâs top missile unit was drafting a plan to create âan enveloping fireâ around Guam with Hwasong-12 missiles, KCNA reported. The plan would be sent to Kim, who would make a decision mid-month.How three recent launches signaled new leaps in North Koreaâs missile capabilities View Graphic How three recent launches signaled new leaps in North Koreaâs missile capabilities
Sure enough, on Aug. 15, the agency reported Kim had been to see the missile unitâs leaders â" he had a great time there, if his broad smile in the photos is anything to go by â" and had reviewed the plan.
He was going to keep an eye on âthe foolish and stupid Yankeesâ a bit longer, KCNA quoted him as saying, making it clear he was talking about the joint U.S.-South Korean milita ry exercises starting Aug. 21.
North Korea always protests the exercises, which it views as a pretext for an invasion, and China and Russia had been urging the United States to tone it down a bit. But they went ahead as planned.
So what did Kim do? On Tuesday, two days before the end of the exercises, he fired a Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile technically capable of reaching beyond Guam.
The United States responded by sending stealth planes and fighter jets on a bombing drill near South Koreaâs border with North Korea on Thursday, the final day of the exercises.
âYou can go back years and find them pretty clearly stating that this is what theyâre going to do and this is why theyâre going to do it,â said Van Jackson, an international security expert at Victoria University in New Zealand. âAnd now itâs just happening.â
In a statement after the launch, KCNA said the missile units were practicing âstriking the bases of the U.S. imperialist aggressor forces located in the Pacific operational theaterâ â" an apparent reference to Guam.The Fact Checker explains what happened to the once not that distant goal of a nuclear deal with North Korea. (Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)
[ North Koreaâs latest launch suggests it rejects both U.S. threats and offers to talk ]
There have been clear signals before many of North Koreaâs recent provocations. Take its launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile technically capable of reaching the mainland United States.
In his New Yearâs address on Jan. 1, Kim said his rocket scientists were in the final stages of preparing for launch.
On July 4, he made good on this.
âThey show their hand when theyâre going to do something that could create actual instability,â Jackson said, citing aircraft and maritime warnings ahead of missile launches over the years and the advance notification to Japan before it lau nched a rocket over its neighbor in 2009.
So despite the often over-the-top language, thereâs plenty of reason to take North Korea seriously when it warns, as it did this week, that there will be more missile launches.
Kim called Tuesdayâs launch a âmeaningful prelude to containing Guamâ and ordered his missile unit to be âfully ready to go into action for decisive battle.â
North Korea is doing several things with these launches, analysts said. One of them is practicing launching under a variety of conditions and from a variety of places.
âThis was an operational test,â said Vipin Narang, an expert on nuclear proliferation and strategy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, noting this launch took place at a new site, just north of the capital.
âTheyâre getting units ready to fire a missile without being destroyed,â he said, adding KCNA has emphasized this was a rehearsal for a real-life situation.
[ North K orean missile flies over Japan, prompting an angry response from Tokyo ]
North Korea was also testing its technology.
Tuesdayâs missile was fired at only half-range, South Koreaâs defense ministry said in a report to the National Assembly on Thursday.
The missile had a full range of 3,100 miles, the ministry said. Guam is 2,100 miles from Pyongyang.
But North Korea is also taking advantage of the mayhem in Washington, said Robert Carlin, a retired U.S. intelligence specialist on North Korea.
âThe North Koreans read our media, they know that Trump is in trouble and that Washington is dysfunctional,â Carlin said. âThey know that, for all of the fist-shaking, the United States really is a headless giant right now. They know that thereâs not much we can do, so theyâre willing to press us.â
The Trump administration has not reciprocated with a clear message to the Kim regime, analysts say.
President Trump has vacillated between calling Kim a âsmart cookieâ and warning him the U.S. military is âlocked and loaded.â
Sanctions have been Washingtonâs main tool for dealing with North Korea, but Pyongyang has found ways to get around them.
âSanctions are always one step behind,â Jackson said. âItâs a whack-a-mole problem.â
[ North Korea could cross ICBM threshold next year, U.S. officials warn in new assessment ]
A forthcoming report from the U.N. panel of experts on North Korea, seen by The Washington Post, says North Korea âcontinues to flout the arms embargo and robust financial and sectoral sanctions, showing that as the sanctions regime expands, so does the scope of evasion.â
Military action against North Korea would have âhorrificâ consequences, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said earlier this month, not least because of the devastation North Korea could inflict on the South with its conventional artillery.
Even a s his officials try to find an opening for negotiations, Trump on Wednesday ruled out diplomacy.
âTalking is not the answer!â he tweeted.
But the presidentâs message was quickly undercut by his own defense secretary.
âWe are never out of diplomatic solutions,â Jim Mattis said at the Pentagon before meeting his South Korean counterpart, as if to back up Secretary of State Rex Tillersonâs comment a few days earlier that âthe president speaks for himself.
Narang, of MIT, said the recent muddling of messages goes beyond ambiguity.
âIncoherence is not a strategy, and this is really starting to look incoherent,â he said.
For that reason, North Korea is likely to continue lobbing threats and firing missiles for the foreseeable future.
As Carlin, the former intelligence analyst, puts it: âUntil the United States gives them a good reason to stop testing, theyâre not going to stop.â
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