The U.S. is deploying a new missile defense system in Guam to protect American forces from any potential North Korean attacks. It's the latest move in the ongoing chess battle between the Western powers and North Korea, and Chuck Hagel promises he's takings "seriously." But is he, really?
Let's hope he is, for all our sakes, because the North Korean military released a statement through its Korean Central News Agency saying it has approval to launch a "merciless" strike on U.S. soil using "cutting-edge smaller, lighter and diversified" nuclear weapons. "The merciless operation of (our) revolutionary armed forces in this regard has been finally examined and ratified," the statement said, according to the AFP. Now would be a very good time to remind everyone that North Korea has shown no sign of possessing a nuclear weapon that can travel far enough to reach U.S. soil. In fact, both long-range missile tests the country has attempted ended in spectacularly hilarious fashion.
North Korea's latest threats seem to be in response to the U.S. announcing the deployment of a missile defense system to protect its interests in Guam. The Wall Street Journal reports the U.S. are deploying the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense battery, or THAAD for short, to protect its airbase in Guam from short and medium range attacks from North Korea. The battery will protect American bases in Guam and some of the surrounding area, but will not protect South Korea. Guam's THAAD defense system was supposed to be deployed in 2015, but they've bumped up the schedule because of the "real and clear" danger of a North Korean threat, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Wednesday. "We take those threats seriously," Hagel added.
Hagel's comments lined up fairly well with what Secretary of State John Kerry said yesterday after meeting with South Korean foreign minister Yun Byung-se. "The bottom line is very simply that what Kim Jong-un has been choosing to do is provocative, it is dangerous, reckless and the US will not accept the DPRK as a nuclear state," Kerry said. "And I reiterate again the US will do what is necessary to defend ourselves and defend our allies, Korea and Japan. We are fully prepared and capable of doing that and the DPRK understands that."
So if the U.S. doesn't want North Korea as a nuclear state why didn't they make a move when they had the chance to get the nuclear rods out of North Korea's control? Yesterday, North Korea announced it would restart its main nuclear processing facility at Yongbyon to beef up its nuclear arsenal and make itself into a small nuclear power. Experts are estimating it will take at least six months for North Korea to get the site back up and running for the first time since it was spectacularly shut down more than five years ago. Unless... well, unless they've been "doing much of the preparatory work quietly," Siegfried Hecker, a nuclear specialist who has visited the North’s nuclear facilities numerous times, told the Washington Post.
The existing fuel rods believed to be at Yongbyon could make up to eight more nuclear bombs, estimates say. The worst part is that this controversy could have been avoided. Joel Wit writes at Foreign Policy that North Korean officials made offers, starting in November 2010 through the end of 2011, that they were "willing to relinquish thousands of fuel rods" stored at Yongbyon to the U.S. or South Korea. Their price was high, though, and everyone missed a huge opportunity to shut that whole thing down:
The North Korean initiative was duly noted, but the United States and South Korea failed to take advantage of the opportunity to ensure that North Korea wasn't able to restart the reactor and turn the rods into new nuclear bombs. Some U.S. officials felt it wasn't worth the effort since the reactor was old and probably useless. Others believed that Washington should focus entirely on stopping Pyongyang's much more threatening program to enrich uranium, unveiled in late 2010, rather than putting the final nail in the coffin of the plutonium production program. Still others, infected by the Obama administration's policy of "strategic patience," did not want to do much of anything before the North demonstrated its willingness to reform and end its bad behavior
Of course, things were quieter then. Kim Jong-Il was still ruling North Korea and didn't pose very much of a threat. When he died, everyone thought Kim Jong-Un would be easier to work with. Except now we're here, with a reinvigorated, open nuclear program in North Korea and those lovely "bellicose threats" to wipe the U.S. off the map we hear so much about.
And we can't do anything about it. A former U.S. official who has visited Yongbyon told the Washington Post this latest move is "very dangerous" because North Korea isn't watched by any international monitoring body. Even Iran gets occasional visits from U.N. sanctioned nuclear monitors. They're prickly and unwelcoming and barely cooperate, but the visits do happen. "They can get away with murder there, and we’re left on the outside jumping up and down," the official told the Post.
So amid all of that nuclear armament speculation, let's take a quick look at what guns are being pointed where in this ongoing Mexican stand-off. North Korea has missiles pointed at Guam; it's making more nukes; on top of the nuclear weapons we're already fairly certain they have. The U.S. now has a missile defense system in Guam, or at least it will shortly, on top of: the U.S.S. Decatur and the U.S.S. John McCain, a radar-equipped destroyer and one of the biggest warships in the American fleet, stationed off the pacific; some radar-dodging F-22 Raptor stealth fighter jets stationed in South Korea; those B-2 Spirit bombers; along with another missile defense system stationed in Alaska to protect our domestic soil. So when it comes down to it, and this really should have been obvious, but the U.S. already has them out prepared and out gunned.
For now, we wait to see what happens. It can be hard to forget that North Korea hasn't done much but blow hot air this whole time. Administration officials were quick to downplay the big "final battle" threats from North Korea on the morning after. The U.S. is obviously very prepared for North Korea to throw the first punch, but prepare is all you can do until that happens. There are still some experts who think the talk is all a ploy. "The possibility of war breaking out is still very low, although there is always the chance of smaller skirmishes. But ultimately the North Koreans don't want this to escalate out of control. They want a turning point in relations with the United States," Prof Shin Jong-dae of Seoul's University of North Korean Studies told the Guardian. "The North Korean regime indulges in this kind of behaviour all the time."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.