Pandemic or missile threats from North Korea — that’s what the United States faces. Truth is, getting excited over North Korea test-launching a couple of short-range ballistic missiles is hard when Coronavirus deaths topped 2,000 in the nation recently. Add to that President Donald Trump extending “social distancing” measures through April, complicating daily life for Americans. However, the fact remains that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, with his missiles and nuclear capability, continues with his bellicose rhetoric, and he’s not going away.
At the beginning of 2020, Kim announced that North Korea “was ending its suspension of nuclear and long-range missile tests.” Consequently, the recent missile tests should come as no surprise. Understanding what motivates North Korea to behave as it does is a challenge. According to 38 North, an analysis group focused exclusively on North Korea, the missiles were most likely KN-25s, which covered a distance of about 150 miles during a military exercise. North Korea designed the missiles for battlefield combat engagement to strike forces in rear-echelon staging areas. The missiles are difficult to locate before launch since they are fired from mobile launchers and are too small to carry a nuclear warhead. Consequently, the warhead is conventional fragmentation.
There are three possible reasons for the resumption of testing. First, the motivation may be just what the North Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui stated, as reported by the North Korean Central News Agency. North Korea wants to drive the United States back to the negotiating table with “acceptable new proposals.” Read: “new proposals where the United States takes off all the economic sanctions, and North Korea makes minimal efforts to reduce its nuclear and missile development.”
Second, since the missiles were not nuclear style, training and keeping the missile development technicians capable and current is a likely reason for the tests. The eight launches since last July don’t seem like massive investment in training and currency. Still, live firing exercises are expensive, especially for a country so low on the economic totem pole. Nonetheless, training new military personnel and keeping existing forces up to date on military hardware are essential for readiness. Live-fire exercises also create confidence in the dependability of weapon systems, especially when moving from development to operational deployment. This was the case since the North Korean military did launch during a military exercise.
Third, the most cynical reason is that media coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed Kim and his fist-waving off the front page. The historic meetings with Trump in Singapore, Vietnam, and Panmunjom gave the North Korean president enormous prestige on the geopolitical world stage. It’s possible Kim misses the limelight. Shooting off missiles gets him back in the news cycle. Prestige, training, and negotiations aside, there is nothing to suggest that North Korea will stop or curtail its missile development anytime soon.
Regardless of the reasons for the March missile launches, the threat these portend is real. General John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a recent Center for Strategic and International Studies conference that North Korea is building new weapon systems, advancing capabilities as fast as “anybody on the planet with the 115th most powerful economy in the world.” North Korea is motivated and, despite being among the poorest countries, has managed to bring online ballistic missiles that are a threat to the United States.
The question is, while battling the COVID-19 pandemic, is the nation ready for this threat? Hyten believes so. He has “100% confidence” that, though North Korea has made significant progress in missile development, the United States can defend itself. Our defense systems exist for the very purpose of defending against North Korea.
In the end, the COVID-19 crisis will pass, and North Korean saber-rattling again will edge onto the front page above the fold. Yet, while dealing with the growing COVID-19 impact on our communities now, America’s defense capability to deal with the North Korean missile threat is in place and ready.
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.
Read more from Dave Patterson.
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