North Korea is expected to conduct its sixth nuclear test by this weekend, posing a political crisis for Washington, Beijing and Seoul.
- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
Ahead of another test of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities expected to occur as soon as this weekend, Washington is ratcheting up the rhetoric against the Hermit Kingdom and putting on a show of military strength, including moving an aircraft carrier strike group into position around the Korean peninsula.
The buildup of firepower and tough talk comes just before the 105th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s founding father and grandfather of the current ruler. The date is often a tense time for the region, as it is traditionally marked by displays of military strength, including missile launches.
President Donald Trump has been vocal about the impending North Korean tests all week, calling the deployment of an aircraft carrier and other ships to the area “an armada,” while disclosing that submarines are part of the group. “We have submarines,” he told Fox News. “Very powerful. Far more powerful than the aircraft carrier. That I can tell you.”
The expected nuclear test would be the country’s sixth — and likely most powerful — in a decade, and pushes the North Korean threat to the top of White House’s priority list, prompting a rash of tweets, statements and even diplomatic bargaining from Trump and his team. But the on-the-fly nature of the the White House’s North Korea policy has sowed confusion in Washington and foreign capitals, conveying the sense the administration’s strategy is still in flux, and that the president himself is learning on the job about a strategic threat that long predated his time in office.
On a visit to South Korea last month, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hardened the U.S. stance toward Pyongyang, raising the possibility of a preemptive strike and chiding China for not applying enough pressure on the isolated country. But Trump later expressed indifference over the matter of Chinese assistance, saying on Twitter Tuesday: “If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them! U.S.A.”
A day later he switched his position, telling The Wall Street Journal that during last week’s U.S.-China summit, he had offered Chinese President Xi Jinping preemptive trade concessions in exchange for Beijing’s help on North Korea.
North Korea, meanwhile, has ratcheted up its own threats. In response to Trump’s Tweet on Tuesday, a spokesperson for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un responded in kind, warning “if the US dares opt for a military action, crying out for ‘pre-emptive attack’…the DPRK is ready to react to any mode of war desired by the US.”
The timing of the missile test is problematic for all major players involved. China and the United States are struggling to find common ground on the issue while feeling one another out over trade imbalances, and South Korea finds itself in the midst of a political crisis, having just impeached its president and pushing through the last days of a last-minute presidential race.
Trump described a light-bulb moment he had during his discussions with Xi after the Chinese leader gave him a thumbnail explanation of the history of the North Korean problem. “After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy,” Trump told the Journal on Wednesday. “I felt pretty strongly that they had a tremendous power [over] North Korea…But it’s not what you would think.”
On Thursday, China’s foreign ministry issued a statement following a post-meeting phone call between the two leaders, saying Xi believes the most pressing problems with the North can be “solved through peaceful means and is ready to maintain communication and coordination with the United States on the issue.”
The politics of the situation are being further complicated by the South Korean presidential race, which will likely lead to the election of a progressive candidate who has argued for a less confrontational approach to Pyongyang. The two frontrunners in the contest both sit to the left of the former President Park Geun-hye, who was impeached and faces indictment for her alleged role in a multimillion-dollar bribery scandal linked to major Korean conglomerates.
But the warnings — real or perceived — continue. On Thursday, the U.S. Air Force dropped a massive, 21,000-lb. warhead on an Islamic State tunnel complex in Afghanistan, the largest single strike in terms of bomb payload at any point in the post-2001 American wars. Some viewed the strike a s a warning to Kim Jong Un, and an attempt for the Pentagon to steer him away from any provocative actions.
“I don’t know if this sends a message, it doesn’t make any difference if it does or not,” Trump said at the White House on Thursday. “North Korea is a problem, the problem will be taken care of.”
His comments marked the second time the president vowed to go it alone on the North Korean problem, casting aside the lessons he suggested had been learned from the Chinese leader. He went on to praise China for “working very hard” on the North Korean problem however, adding that he’s “really gotten to like and respect” Xi.
But militarily, the pieces continue to move. In a major show of force, the U.S. Air Force conducted a no-warning drill of the entire 18th Air Wing stationed at the Kadena air base in Okinawa on Wednesday, rolling out dozens of F-15 Eagles, E-3 Sentries, KC-135 Stratotankers, and HH-60 Pave Hawks for display.
The Air Force also sent a “nuke sniffer” WC-135 Constant Phoenix surveillance plane capable of detecting radioactive debris to Kadena, a sure sign the Pentagon was waiting for a test.
There is more than one audience for these shows of strength, however. The military display “puts pressure on China to do something, because it’s showing Beijing that the administration is willing to flex some muscle,” on the issue, said Mira Rapp-Hooper, a regional expert with the Center for a New American Security. The dispatch of the Carl Vinson is “very much a deterrence and presence operation,” she added, especially since any strikes against the well-defended North would not likely come from manned U.S. aircraft.
Despite all of this, the Pentagon has tried to downplay to deployment of the carrier strike group, saying that American ships operate in the region on a regular basis. Yet the ships were pulled out of a planned exercise with the Australian Navy in order to steam toward Korea, signaling how seriously Washington is taking the threat from Pyongyang.
Speaking before a meeting with the Turkish defense minister at the Pentagon on Thursday, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters that “the bottom line is North Korea has got to change its behavior — that is an agreed position among the international community nations that are working together on this.”
Photo Credit: ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images