A ‘Cuban Missile Crisis in Slow Motion’ in North Korea

WASHINGTON — All the elements of the North Korean nuclear crisis — the relentless drive by Kim Jong-un to assemble an arsenal, the propaganda and deception swirling around his progress, the hints of a covert war by the United States to undermine the effort, rather than be forced into open confrontation — were on vivid display this weekend.

There was the parade in Pyongyang’s main square, with wave after wave of missiles atop mobile launchers, intended to convey a sense that Mr. Kim’s program is unstoppable. Then came another embarrassing setback, a missile test that failed seconds after liftoff, the same pattern seen in a surprising number of launches since President Barack Obama ordered stepped-up cyber- and electronic-warfare attacks in early 2014. Finally, there was the test that did not happen, at least yet — a sixth nuclear explosion. It is primed and ready to go, satellite images show.

What is playing out, said Robert Litwak of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, who tracks this potentially deadly interplay, is “the Cuban missile crisis in slow motion.” But the slow-motion part appears to be speeding up, as President Trump and his aides have made it clear that the United States will no longer tolerate the incremental advances that have moved Mr. Kim so close to his goals.

Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson has said repeatedly that “our policy of strategic patience has ended,” hardening the American position as Mr. Kim makes steady progress toward two primary goals: shrinking a nuclear weapon to a size that can fit atop a long-range missile, and developing a hydrogen bomb, with up to a thousand times the power of the Hiroshima-style weapons he has built so far.

So far, Mr. Trump has played his hand — militarily, at least — as cautiously as his predecessors: A series of Situation Room meetings has come to the predictable conclusion that while the United States can be more aggressive, it should stop just short of confronting the North so frontally that it risks rekindling the Korean War, nearly 64 years after it came to an uneasy armistice.

Still, the current standoff has grown only more volatile. It pits a new president’s vow never to allow North Korea to put American cities at risk — “It won’t happen!” he said on Twitter on Jan. 2 — against a young, insecure North Korean leader who sees that capability as his only guarantee of survival.

Mr. Trump is clearly new to this kind of dynamic, as he implicitly acknowledged when he volunteered that Xi Jinping, China’s president, had given him what amounted to a compressed seminar in Chinese-North Korean relations. He emerged surprised that Beijing did not have the kind of absolute control over its impoverished neighbor that he insisted it did last year.

“After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy,” he said. “It’s not what you would think.”

Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, gave voice to the difficult balancing act on North Korea on Sunday. General McMaster, himself a military historian, said on ABC’s “This Week” that while the president had not ruled out any option, it was time for the United States “to take action, short of armed conflict, so we can avoid the worst” in dealing with “this unpredictable regime.” Translation: Pre-emptive strikes are off the table, at least for now.

The fact that Mr. Kim did not conduct a nuclear test over the weekend, timed to the anniversary of the birth of his grandfather, the founder of the country and its nuclear program, may indicate that Mr. Xi has given him pause. In the White House’s telling, Mr. Xi is responding to pressure by Mr. Trump to threaten a cutoff of the North’s financial links and energy supplies — its twin lifelines as a state.

“Why would I call China a currency manipulator when they are working with us on the North Korean problem?” Mr. Trump asked in a Twitter post on Sunday morning, making it clear that everything, including the trade issues he vowed to solve as a candidate, could be a bargaining chip when it comes to defanging the North.

The North is trying to create the sense that it is too late for any such defanging — that it has reached a tipping point in its nuclear push. That is why Mr. Kim stood for hours as so many missiles rolled by on Saturday, carried on portable launch vehicles that can be hidden in hundreds of tunnels bored into North Korean mountains.

For all the talk of an eventual intercontinental missile that can reach the United States, one of the stars of the show was a missile of lesser range — the Pukguksong-2, also known as the KN-15. It is a solid-fuel rocket that can be launched in minutes, unlike liquid-fueled missiles, which take hours of preparation. That means they are far less vulnerable to a pre-emptive strike from an American missile launched from a base in Japan or from a carrier strike group like the one Mr. Trump has put off the Korean coast.

The KN-15 was successfully tested in February. On Saturday, it was paraded in public for the first time, like a conquering hero fresh from a moon landing.

“The big takeaway is that they’re taking this seriously,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a North Korea specialist at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey, in California. “They’re trying to develop operational systems that might actually survive on the ground,” perhaps even enduring blows meant to leave them crippled or destroyed.

But Mr. Kim’s otherwise triumphant day took a bad turn when the missile test failed. North Korea used to be pretty successful at launching missiles, so much so that its missiles were sold around the world. Then its launches started failing, suggesting the presence of a hidden Washington hand.

Its big setbacks have revolved around the most threatening missile it has so far flight-tested, known as the Musudan. Last year, it had a failure rate of 88 percent. Mr. Kim was reported to have ordered an investigation into the possibility of foreign sabotage, and the missile has remained unseen since.

Asked on Fox News on Sunday whether the United States had played any role in the latest missile failure, K. T. McFarland, General McMaster’s departing deputy, said, “You know we can’t talk about that.” Most likely, no one knows for sure, but the ambiguity feeds North Korea’s paranoia, intelligence experts say.

But such programs buy time; they are not solutions. Equally worrisome to Washington officials and private analysts is the North’s steady progress over a decade in developing nuclear warheads that are small enough to fit atop long-range missiles. By definition, the atomic work appears to be far less open to prying eyes and foreign sabotage. The explosive nuclear tests take place in tunnels dug deep beneath a rugged mountain.

“They’ve done five tests in 10 years,” said Siegfried S. Hecker, a Stanford professor who once directed the Los Alamos weapons laboratory in New Mexico, a birthplace of the atomic bomb. “You can learn a lot in that time.”

Tempting as the analogies to Cuba may be, Mr. Kim is probably thinking of another nuclear negotiation — with Libya, in 2003. Its leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, agreed to give up his nascent nuclear program in return for promises from the West of economic integration and acceptance. It never really happened, and as soon as Libya’s populace turned against the dictator during the Arab Spring, the United States and its European and Arab allies drove him from power. Ultimately, he was pulled out of a ditch and shot.

Periodically, the North Koreans write about that experience, noting what a sap Colonel Qaddafi was to give up the nuclear program that might have saved him. Mr. Kim, it appears, is not planning to make the same mistake.

Ballistic missiles were paraded through Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, on Saturday as part of the celebration of the 105th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, the country’s founder. Credit Agence France-Presse — Getty Images



McMaster: North Korea 'coming to a head'

Washington (CNN)Saying "this problem is coming to a head," national security adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster said Sunday "all of our options are on the table, undergoing refinement and further development" in reaction to the North Korean nuclear program.

But he emphasized the US hopes not to use military force.

"The President has made clear that he will not accept the United States and its allies and partners in the region being under threat from this hostile regime with nuclear weapons. And so we're working together with our allies and partners, and with the Chinese leadership, to develop a range of options," McMaster told ABC's "This Week."

He said the National Security Council is collaborating with the Pentagon and the State Department, and intelligence agencies are working on providing options "and have them ready" for President Donald Trump "if this pattern of destabilizing behavior continues."

McMaster said it is the consensus of the US, along with allies in the region, that "this problem is coming to a head. And so it's time for us to undertake all actions we can, short of a military option, to try to resolve this peacefully."

He added, "In the coming weeks, months, I think there's a great opportunity for all of us ... to take action short of armed conflict so we can avoid the worst."

McMaster was speaking hours after US and South Korean defense officials told CNN that an attempted missile launch by North Korea failed. His comments echo those of a White House official earlier this month, who said "the clock has now run out, and all options are on the table" in regard to the rogue nation.

The attempted launch occurred a day after the regime of Kim Jong Un showed off a bevy of new missiles and launchers at a large-scale military parade on its most important holiday.

The national security adviser said the latest failed test "fits into a pattern of provocative and destabilizing and threatening behavior on the part of the North Korean regime."

South Korean and US intelligence officials are trying to determine what type of missile was used Sunday, but initial reports said it could be a medium-range missile, according to a White House foreign policy adviser.
Asked by reporters Sunday about the US response to the test, the foreign policy adviser cited previous missile failures by North Korea.

"It's a failed test -- follows another failed test. So really, no need to reinforce their failure. We've got options. We've got a range of options -- both militarily, diplomatic, economic and others -- a wide array of tools at the disposal for the president should he choose to use them."

"If they took the time and energy to launch a missile and fail, we don't need to expend any resources against that," the foreign policy adviser said.

The US has recently leaned on China -- North Korea's main ally -- to apply pressure to Pyongyang to curtail its nuclear ambitions. Trump held a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping earlier this month and has hoped to use trade as a negotiating tool for Xi's cooperation on North Korea.

The Trump administration has touted some successes on that front in the past week, including the suspension of coal shipments from North Korea to China. Overall imports from North Korea to China, however, have increased.
Asked if he was confident that China will pressure North Korea in a meaningful way, McMaster replied, "We'll see what happens."

"Not only did they establish a very warm relationship, but since that time, they've worked together on other issues," McMaster said, referring to Trump and Xi. "On North Korea, they worked together. But they worked together as well in connection with the response to the mass murder on the part of the Assad regime in connection with the UN vote."

McMaster praised China's decision to abstain last week from a UN Security Council resolution condemning Syria's recent chemical weapons attack, calling it a "courageous" move. Russia vetoed the resolution.


Trump on North Korea: 'Gotta behave'

President Trump has a simple message for the complex North Korea conundrum: "Gotta behave."

Trump gave his two-word prescription Monday morning when asked by a reporter at the White House Easter Egg Roll. The president has been tweeting warnings at North Korea for weeks as the dictatorship ramps up provocative missile tests.

Vice President Pence, speaking near the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea on Monday, delivered a similar steely statement, saying the "era of strategic patience is over." Pence, expressing impatience with the speed and willingness of the regime to end its nuclear weapons program, said Trump was hopeful that China would use its “extraordinary levers” to pressure Pyongyang to abandon its weapons.

"President Trump has made it clear that the patience of the United States and our allies in this region has run out and we want to see change," Pence said. "We want to see North Korea abandon its reckless path of the development of nuclear weapons, and also its continual use and testing of ballistic missiles is unacceptable."

Later Monday, Pence reiterated that “all options were on the table” to deal with the threat posed by Pyongyang. He said any use of nuclear weapons would be met with “an overwhelming and effective response.” Speaking alongside South Korean Acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn, Pence said the American commitment to South Korea is “iron-clad and immutable.”

A day earlier, deputy national security adviser K.T. MacFarland told Fox News’ Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday” that North Korea was a problem for everybody in the region, including China -- the North’s strongest ally.

"North Korea is a liability to everybody and it's a threat not just to the United States, not just to South Korea, not just to Japan, not just to Russia, but it's actually a threat to China as well.”

H.R. McMaster, Trump’s top national security adviser, told ABC’s “This Week” the U.S. would rely on its allies as well as Chinese leadership to solve the issues with North Korea.

McMaster cited Trump's recent decision to order missile strikes in Syria after a chemical attack blamed on the Assad government as a sign that the president "is clearly comfortable making tough decisions." But at the same time, McMaster said, "it's time for us to undertake all actions we can, short of a military option, to try to resolve this peacefully."

A North Korean missile exploded during launch on Sunday, U.S. and South Korean officials said. The high-profile failure came as the North tried to showcase its nuclear and missile capabilities around the birth anniversary of the North's late founder and as a U.S. aircraft carrier neared the Korean Peninsula.


North Korea 'will test missiles weekly', senior official tells BBC

"We'll be conducting more missile tests on a weekly, monthly and yearly basis," Vice Foreign Minister Han Song-Ryol told the BBC's John Sudworth in Pyongyang.

He said that an "all out war" would result if the US was "reckless enough to use military means".
Earlier, US Vice-President Mike Pence said his country's "era of strategic patience" with North Korea was over.
He arrived in Seoul on Sunday hours after North Korea carried out a failed missile launch.

Tensions have been escalating on the peninsula, with heated rhetoric from both North Korea and the US.
Speaking alongside South Korea's acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn later, Mr Pence said North Korea should not test US President Donald Trump.

"Just in the past two weeks, the world witnessed the strength and resolve of our new president in actions taken in Syria and Afghanistan," Mr Pence said.

"North Korea would do well not to test his resolve or the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region."

He reiterated US support for South Korea, telling his host: "We are with you 100%."

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