North Korea says it tested new railway-borne missile system to strike “threatening forces”

SEOUL –Missiles fired by North Korea on September 15 were a test of a new “railway-borne missile system” designed as a potential counter-strike to any forces that threaten the country, state news agency KCNA reported on September 16. The missiles flew 497 miles before striking a target in the sea off North Korea’s east coast.

The North Korean launches came the same day that South Korea tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), becoming the first country without nuclear weapons to develop such a system. The two Koreas have been in an increasingly heated arms race, with both sides unveiling more capable missiles and other weapons.

The tests by nuclear-armed North Korea drew international condemnation and concern, however, with the United States saying they violated U.N. Security Council resolutions and posed a threat to Pyongyang’s neighbors.

North Korea has been steadily developing its weapons systems, raising the stakes for stalled talks aimed at dismantling its nuclear and ballistic missile arsenals in return for U.S. sanctions relief.

The North Korean test was conducted by a railway-borne missile regiment that had been organized earlier this year, the KCNA report said.

“The railway-borne missile system serves as an efficient counter-strike means capable of dealing a harsh multi-concurrent blow to the threat-posing forces,” said Pak Jong Chon, a North Korean marshal and member of the Presidium of the Politburo of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, who oversaw the test.

“Rail mobile missiles are a relatively cheap and reliable option for countries seeking to improve the survivability of their nuclear forces,” Adam Mount, a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, said on Twitter. “Russia did it. The U.S. considered it. It makes a ton of sense for North Korea.”

Mount and other analysts said the system is likely constrained by North Korea’s relatively limited and sometimes unreliable rail network, but that it could add another layer of complexity for a foreign military seeking to track and destroy the missiles before they are fired.

Marshal Pak said there are plans to expand the railway-borne missile regiment to a brigade-size force in the near future, and to conduct training to gain “operational experience for actual war.”

It is unusual to see the sheer variety in missile delivery systems and launch platforms that North Korea develops, said Ankit Panda, a senior fellow at the U.S.-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “It’s not very cost effective (especially for a sharply resource-constrained state) and far more operationally complex than a leaner, vertically integrated force,” he said on Twitter.

– edited from Reuters, September 16, 2021
PeaceMeal, Sept./October 2021

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How Kim Jong Un keeps advancing his nuclear weapons program

Despite an unprecedented series of meetings between then-U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, negotiations over eliminating the latter’s nuclear arsenal have stalled. In the meantime, Kim has been busy making his nuclear arsenal bigger, deadlier and better able to strike South Korea, Japan, American forces stationed in Asia, and the United States mainland. At an October military parade to mark the 75th anniversary of the ruling Workers’ Party, Kim unveiled a new array of weaponry that shows how far his arsenal has grown in the last two years, and included a recently developed missile designed to strike the U.S. The achievements undermine Trump’s assertion that his summits with Kim had ensured North Korea was “no longer a nuclear threat.” And relations under U.S. President Joe Biden are off to a prickly start.

Kim appears to have acquired the capability to strike the United States after successfully testing an intercontinental ballistic missile in November 2017. But one test may not be enough to ensure the reliability of the ICBM known as the Hwasong-15. The new ICBM, displayed at the October military parade, is bigger and likely boasts more powerful engines, weapons experts said. They added that its likely purpose is to deliver a multiple nuclear warhead payload that could overwhelm U.S. defenses or a high-yield weapon.

North Korea can fit miniature warheads onto missiles and shoot them, a United Nations report said in 2020. It has also developed weapons that can be moved around more swiftly to evade detection. What’s less clear is whether Kim’s military could beat anti-missile systems and survive reentry, or if its weapons are accurate enough to strike their intended targets.

Of North Korea’s six nuclear weapon tests, Kim was responsible for four. They’ve come a long way since the first detonation in 2006. That one measured less than one kiloton (a force equal to 1,000 tons of TNT), leaving experts wondering whether it had been a partial failure. The most recent test in September 2017 was the most powerful. Its estimated yield of 120-250 kilotons dwarfed the 15-20 kiloton U.S. bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945

Kim has also rolled out new solid-fuel ballistic missiles that are easier to move, hide and fire than many liquid-fuel versions. He has launched more than two dozen since May 2019, including nuclear-capable, hypersonic KN-23 missiles that can strike all of South Korea — including U.S. forces stationed south of Seoul — within two minutes. He has also launched KN-25 short-range missiles designed to be fired in rapid succession from a single launcher to overwhelm interceptors. The new ballistic Pukguksong-3 missile — the biggest of the bunch — is designed to be fired from a submarine and has an estimated range of 1,200 miles. At the October parade, it rolled out an even more advanced version, which likely has a greater range and payload capacity.

North Korea has been self-sufficient regarding fissile material for decades. Its program, which once turned out enough plutonium for one nuclear bomb a year, now relies largely on uranium enrichment and, according to weapons experts, produces enough fissile material annually for about six bombs. The Trump administration said North Korea enlarged its stockpile even after nuclear talks began.

What other surprises might be out there? North Korea may be working on ICBMs that carry multiple warheads and in-flight countermeasures to throw interceptors off their target. Kim has pushed to develop his fleet of submarines and is looking to deploy a new vessel soon that experts say could fire missiles. He may even try to revive the country’s satellite program, arguing that North Korea has the right as a sovereign state to develop a space program. Weapons experts say satellite launches could be used by North Korea to advance missile technology.

Despite being among the world’s poorest countries, North Korea has one of the largest militaries. Of its 25-million population, nearly 1.2-million people are in active service, according to a U.S. State Department report. In addition, more than 6-million North Koreans are considered reserve soldiers. The military has thousands of pieces of artillery trained on the Seoul area and hundreds of missiles that can strike South Korea and Japan.

The money needed to afford all this is not huge in global terms. North Korea spent nearly $4 billion on its military in 2016, according to the State Department report — roughly equivalent to two days’ U.S. military spending. As a share of its economy, though, the outlay ranks among the highest globally. Although international sanctions have hit its economy hard, North Korea is evading some through means such as clandestine, high-seas transfers of banned goods such as oil, and generating enough cash to keep its nuclear weapons program moving through methods that include ransomware attacks.

Trump’s talks with Kim turned the duo from insult-throwing enemies into dialog partners, and he claimed his diplomacy with Pyongyang prevented a war, but their three meetings didn’t produce a significant breakthrough, and North Korean missile testing and name-calling have resumed. North Korea has become what three decades of diplomacy had tried to prevent — a state capable of developing, projecting and detonating nuclear weapons. In response, the U.S. military is maintaining its customary “high levels of readiness” on the Korean Peninsula as a deterrent to any threat, General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in December 2019.Six months later, North Korea cut off communication links set up in 2018 with South Korea and blew up the inter-Korean liaison office. And in March, North Korea fired off a pair of cruise missiles on the heels of an Asian trip by top Biden administration officials.

– edited from Bloomberg, March 24, 2021
PeaceMeal, March April 2021

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

U.S. may have to rethink its approach to North Korea

Jonathan Cheng
The Wall Street Journal, January 22, 2019

SEOUL—A year of intense diplomacy, including the first summit between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean leader, has helped dial back tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

A second summit is now being planned for late February between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. But so far diplomacy has yielded little on one of Mr. Trump’s top foreign-policy priorities: Mr. Kim appears no more willing to give up his nuclear program than he was before engagement began more than a year ago.

On January 1, Mr. Kim said in a New Year’s address, without elaborating, that he isn’t producing nuclear weapons, but he offered no suggestion that he was willing to discuss his existing arsenal, and he repeated demands for sanctions relief from the United States.

In December, North Korea said it wouldn’t give up its nuclear arsenal unless the U.S. first removed nuclear threats in any “areas from where the Korean Peninsula is targeted.” The vast majority of U.S. nuclear warheads are stationed in the continental United States and are capable of targeting North Korea.

A few weeks earlier, North Korea had said it could resume open development of its nuclear program if U.S. economic sanctions against the country remained in place.

For an increasing number of policy makers and North Korea watchers in Washington, this all raises a thorny question: What can the U.S. do about a North Korean state that may never give up its nuclear weapons?

The official U.S. diplomatic stance leaves little room for talking about North Korea as an established nuclear-weapons -possessing state. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in recent interviews has reaffirmed the U.S. policy goal as the “final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea,” a variant on the U.S.’s long-cherished goal of CVID—the “complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement” (or “denuclearization”) of North Korea.

But while U.S. government officials involved in the diplomatic efforts haven’t yet ruled out Pyongyang’s willingness to denuclearize, some North Korea experts in Washington say it is time to face an unpleasant reality: that North Korea, having invested heavily in its nuclear program for decades, isn’t going to give up its arsenal now that it is at the finish line.

These experts recommend de-emphasizing, or even abandon-ing, the goal of dismantling Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal, and instead of trying to manage a nuclear North Korea in hopes of pre-venting a miscalculation that could lead to an unwanted nuclear showdown.

“Nobody is happy about this outcome, but unfortunately it’s the world we live in,” says Adam Mount, a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists and part of a small but growing circle of mostly younger nuclear- and foreign-policy specialists calling for what they say is a more pragmatic assessment of Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities and intentions.

These experts consider the goal of denuclearizing North Korea to be unrealistic. Setting this goal aside, they argue, would open the door to long-overdue policy discussions, such as how to ensure that North Korea manages its nuclear arsenal in a responsible manner and doesn’t sell its components or expertise to other countries or nonstate actors.

“When a country becomes a nuclear-weapons state, you find a common ground in managing the relationship and transparency, like we learned to do with the Soviets and the Chinese,” says Mr. Mount. “Every week we spend on an unrealistic attempt to disarm North Korea is one where we’re not managing the threat from North Korea,” he says. “There is a range of practical and pressing threats that emanate from North Korea that…are being neglected while we chase this fantasy.”

James Clapper, a former U.S. director of national intelligence, has expressed similar views about how to approach the regime in Pyongyang. The North Koreans are “not going to give up their nuclear weapons,” he said in a speech at a 2017 forum in Seoul. Mr. Clapper urged U.S. policy makers to consider opening a de facto embassy in Pyongyang, perhaps in exchange for a more modest goal, such as a verifiable halt to nuclear and missile tests.

Other North Korea experts and U.S. policy makers counter that it’s premature and inappropriate to even be talking about North Korea as a nuclear-weapons state. These experts believe that securing a freeze on all nuclear and missile development, even if unlikely, is attainable — and could pave the way for an eventual rollback of the North’s nuclear capabilities.

Duyeon Kim, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, argues it is irresponsible to even publicly discuss the prospect of accepting North Korea as a nuclear- weapons-possessing state. It could open the door for U.S. allies South Korea and Japan to pursue nuclear weapons and spark an arms race in the region, she says.

“To suggest that we should think about living with a nuclear North Korea in aiding and abetting North Korea,” Ms. Kim says. “That’s exactly what they want to hear.”

Mr. Cheng is Seoul bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal. His op-ed was reprinted in Peacemeal, Jan/February 2019.

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