In 2017, North Korea conducted a series of missile and nuclear tests that demonstrated the country's ability to launch ballistic missiles beyond its immediate region and suggested that North Korea's nuclear weapons capability was developing at a faster rate than had been assessed by the U.S. intelligence community. This, coupled with a regular joint U.S.–South Korea military exercise undertaken in August 2017 as well as U.S. retaliatory threats, raised international tensions in the region and beyond.
Background[edit | edit source]
North Korea's nuclear weapons program[edit | edit source]
In his New Year's Day speech on January 2, 2017, Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, said that the country was in the "last stage" of preparations to test-fire an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
On May 3, North Korea issued a rare and harshly worded criticism of its chief ally, China, stating that "One must clearly understand that the D.P.R.K.'s line of access to nukes for the existence and development of the country can neither be changed nor shaken[...] And that the D.P.R.K. will never beg for the maintenance of friendship with China, risking its nuclear program which is as precious as its own life, no matter how valuable the friendship is... China should no longer try to test the limits of the D.P.R.K.'s patience[...] China had better ponder over the grave consequences to be entailed by its reckless act of chopping down the pillar of the D.P.R.K.-China relations." The harsh commentary also accused the Chinese media (which is tightly controlled by the government) of dancing to the tune of the U.S.
In early August 2017, The Washington Post reported an assessment, made by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency in July 2017, which said that North Korea had successfully developed nuclear warheads for missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland (a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can fit inside its missiles).
Sanctions on North Korea; trade with China[edit | edit source]
Since North Korea's first nuclear test in 2006, the UN Security Council had passed a number of resolutions that imposed various sanctions on the DPRK, including restrictions on economic activity. Nevertheless, North Korea's gross domestic product grew by an estimated 3.9 percent in 2016, to about $28.5 billion, the fastest pace in 17 years; the progress was largely attributed to continued trade with China, which accounted for more than 90% of North Korea's international trade.
In late February 2017, following North Korea's February 12 test of the Pukguksong-2 medium-range ballistic missile, China, which regards its trade with North Korea and the putative missile threat to the U.S. as separate issues, said it would comply with UN Resolution 2321 and halt all coal imports (North Korea's main export) from North Korea. The halt notwithstanding, in April 2017, China said that its trade with North Korean had expanded. In July 2017, China's trade with North Korea, while the ban on North Korean coal was said to have slowed imports from the DPRK, was worth $456 million, up from $426 million in July 2016, the year-to-date trade being up 10.2 percent at $3.01 billion.
Imprisonment of U.S. citizens[edit | edit source]
American university student Otto Warmbier was freed from North Korea in June 2017, while in a coma after nearly 18 months of captivity. Warmbier died without regaining consciousness on June 19, 2017, six days after his return to the United States. Some U.S. officials blamed North Korea for his death. In July 2017, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson authorized a "Geographical Travel Restriction" which banned Americans from entering North Korea.
THAAD in South Korea[edit | edit source]
Ostensibly to counter North Korea′s missile threat, United States Forces Korea (USFK) had been planning deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in South Korea, which is designed to detect and destroy intermediate- and medium-range ballistic missiles (not intercontinental ballistic missile). The deployment had faced strong oppositions from China, Russia, and North Korea. In late April 2017, it was reported that while THAAD had originally been scheduled to become operational by the end of 2017, this could occur sooner. According to U.S. Forces Korea′s announcement, THAAD stationed in South Korea had reached initial operating capability (IOC) on May 1, 2017.
Timeline[edit | edit source]
USS Carl Vinson's movements: April 2017[edit | edit source]
After the 2017 Shayrat missile strike in Syria in response to the Khan Shaykhun chemical attack, tensions increased greatly with North Korea as it saw the attack on Syria as a reason for its nuclear program. Following North Korea′s test-firing of a medium-range ballistic missile from its eastern port of Sinpo into the Sea of Japan on April 5, which came a month after four ballistic missiles were fired towards the Sea of Japan, tensions increased as U.S. president Donald Trump had said the U.S. was prepared to act alone to deal with the nuclear threat from North Korea. On April 9, the U.S. Navy announced it was sending a navy strike group headed by the USS Carl Vinson supercarrier to the West Pacific ("to sail north and report on station in the Western Pacific Ocean after departing Singapore April 8"), but due to apparent miscommunication inside the U.S. administration, the naval move was presented as one towards the Korean peninsula. This information was backtracked by the U.S. government a few days later.
The April 8 announcement by the Navy led to a "glitch-ridden sequence of events". On April 17, North Korea's deputy United Nations ambassador accused the United States of turning the Korean peninsula into "the world's biggest hotspot" and the North Korean government stated "its readiness to declare war on the United States if North Korean forces were to be attacked." In reality on April 18, the Carl Vinson and its escorts were 3,500 miles from Korea engaged in scheduled joint Royal Australian Navy exercises in the Indian Ocean. On April 24 the Japanese destroyers Ashigara and Samidare participated with the USS Carl Vinson in tactical training drills near the Philippines; North Korea threatened to sink her with a single strike. The Carl Vinson aircraft carrier had been in the South China Sea in 2015 and again in February 2017 on routine patrols. In late April 2017, Trump stated that "[t]here is a chance that we [the United States] could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea".
On April 24, North Korea marked the 85th anniversary of the Korean People's Army by what was said to be "its largest ever military drill", conducted in Wonsan. The following day, it was reported that the United States and South Korea had begun installing key elements of the THAAD missile defense in South Korea's Seongju County.
ICBM test-flight on 4 July[edit | edit source]
On July 4[lower-roman 1] North Korea conducted the first publicly announced flight test of its ICBM Hwasong-14, timed to coincide with the U.S. Independence Day celebrations. This flight had a claimed range of 933 kilometres (580 mi) eastwards into the Sea of Japan (East Sea of Korea) and reached an altitude of 2,802 kilometres (9,193,000 ft) during a 39-minute flight. The U.S. government experts classified the missile launch as a big step in Pyongyang's quest to acquire a nuclear-tipped weapon capable of hitting the U.S. North Korea declared it was now "a full-fledged nuclear power that has been possessed of the most powerful inter-continental ballistic rocket capable of hitting any part of the world".
USFK said in a statement dated July 4, 2017: ″Eighth U.S. Army and Republic of Korea (ROK) military personnel conducted a combined event exercising assets countering North Korea’s destabilizing and unlawful actions on July 4.″ South Korea′s Hyunmoo-2B and U.S. Army Tactical Missile System missiles were launched during the drill.
Rhetorical escalation in August 2017[edit | edit source]
On August 8, 2017, President Donald Trump warned that North Korean nuclear threats would "be met with fire, fury and frankly power, the likes of which the world has never seen before", after the mass media reported that a US intelligence assessment had found that the country had successfully produced a miniaturised nuclear warhead capable of fitting inside its missiles. President Trump also remarked of North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un: "He has been very threatening beyond a normal state." Within hours, North Korea responded by announcing that it was considering attacking U.S. military bases in the US territory of Guam.
On August 10, 2017, North Korean Lt. Gen. Kim Rak-gyom responded to Trump's speech of "fire and fury", saying his words were "nonsense" and asserting that "reasonable dialogue" wasn't possible with Trump as president of the US. The North Korean governmental news agency KCNA reported that Kim Jong-un's military was considering a plan to fire four ICBMs, type Hwasong-12, into the Philippine Sea just 30–40 kilometres away from the island Guam. The flight time of missiles was estimated to be exactly 17 minutes and 45 seconds. A report by the KCNA suggested the plan would be put into operation in mid-August. U.S. officials stated that Joseph Y. Yun, the US envoy for North Korea policy, and Pak Song-il, a senior North Korean diplomat at the country’s UN mission, were making regular contact during this dispute, through a conduit of communication they called the New York channel.
On August 11, Donald Trump wrote on Twitter that ″military solutions″ were "fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely". Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton and former U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta stated that the standoff between the U.S. and North Korea over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program was comparable to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
On August 14, Ukraine's Chairman of the National Security and Defense Council, Oleksandr Turchynov denied that it had ever supplied defense technology to North Korea, responding to an article in the New York Times that said North Korea might have purchased rocket engines from Ukrainian factory Yuzhmash, who have also denied the report.
On August 15, the North Korean leader said he was delaying a decision on firing missiles towards the US Pacific territory of Guam while he waits to see what Trump does next.
From August 21—31, the U.S and South Korea conducted the 2017 Ulchi-Freedom Guardian exercise that was billed by U.S. Forces Korea as slightly smaller than the previous year's, with 17,500 U.S. troops participating; an editorial carried by North Korea's official Rodong Sinmun newspaper condemned the drills as "the most explicit expression of hostility against us".
On August 25, North Korea fired three missiles from Kangwon Province in the southeastern part of the country. According to Cmdr. Dave Benham of US Pacific Command, one of the missiles exploded on launch while the other two suffered critical failures in flight, splashing down in the Sea of Japan after flying a distance of 250 kilometers.
Missile test over Japan on 29 August[edit | edit source]
On August 29, just before 6:00 AM JST, North Korea launched a missile which flew over Hokkaido, Japan. The missile reached an altitude of 550 km and flew a total distance of around 2,700 km before crashing into the Pacific. The missile was not shot down by the Japanese military. This was the third time, with two prior events in 1998 and 2009, that a North Korean missile had passed over Japanese territory. However, in both of those prior cases, North Korea had claimed that they were launching satellites. The missile prompted activation of the J-Alert warning system in Tohoku and Hokkaido, advising people to seek shelter. The launch was scheduled on the 107th anniversary of the Japan-Korea annexation treaty, and KCNA said that it was "a bold plan to make the cruel Japanese islanders insensible on bloody August 29". The missile launched was said to have followed a much flatter trajectory than those tested earlier in 2017.
An emergency UN Security Council meeting was called for later that day to discuss the event. In a statement issued by the White House in response to the launch, US President Donald Trump said that "All options are on the table" regarding North Korea.
U.S. response at the end of August[edit | edit source]
On August 30, President Trump issued a statement via Twitter saying "The U.S. has been talking to North Korea and paying them extortion money, for 25 years. Talking is not the answer!". However, when asked by reporters at a meeting with South Korean Defence Minister Song Young-Moo whether diplomacy was off the table, US Secretary of Defence James Mattis stated that "We're never out of diplomatic solutions" and "We always look for more. We're never complacent".
On August 31, the US flew a squadron of bombers, including two nuclear-capable B-1B's and four F-35's, and conducted bombing drills in what US Pacific Command described as a "direct response to North Korea's intermediate range ballistic missile launch", referring to North Korea's IRBM launch on August 29.
Sixth nuclear test and aftermath: September 2017[edit | edit source]
On September 3, at 3:31 AM UTC, the United States Geological Survey reported that it had detected a magnitude 6.3 earthquake in North Korea near the Punggye-ri test site. Given the shallow depth of the quake and its proximity to North Korea's primary nuclear weapons testing facility, experts concluded that the country had conducted a sixth nuclear weapon test since the country first exploded a nuclear device in 2006. North Korea claimed that they had tested a hydrogen bomb capable of being mounted on an ICBM. The independent seismic monitoring agency NORSAR estimated that the blast had a yield of around 120 kilotons. An official KCNA statement of September 3, also claimed North Korea's ability to conduct a "super-powerful EMP attack".
On the same day, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis speaking on behalf of the White House, warned there would be "a massive military response" to any threat from North Korea against the United States, including Guam, or its allies.
Early on September 4, the Republic of Korea (South Korea) conducted a ballistic missile exercise that involved the South's Hyunmoo ballistic missile and the F-15K fighter jets, which was billed to be in response to North's detonation. The state news agency Yonhap said the South's military had carried out a live-fire exercise simulating an attack on the North's nuclear site, hitting "designated targets in the East Sea".
On the same day, the UN Security Council convened to discuss further measures against North Korea; the leaked draft the relevant UNSC resolution prepared by the U.S. was said to call for an oil embargo on North Korea, ban on the country's exports of textiles, on the hiring of North Korean workers abroad as well as personal sanctions against Kim Jong-un. Despite resistance from China and Russia, the United States on 8 September formally requested a vote of the United Nations Security Council on the U.S. resolution. UNSC 2375 passed on September 11 as a significantly watered-down version of the United States' request.
In an interview on September 4, Liu Jieyi, China's ambassador to the United Nations, called for dialogue, saying that the issue needed to be resolved "peacefully". He said, "China will never allow chaos and war on the peninsula."
President Vladimir Putin speaking to the Chinese press on September 5, 2017, described U.S. proposals for further sanctions on Pyongyang as "useless"; he said, "Ramping up military hysteria in such conditions is senseless; it's a dead end." Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has likened the war of words between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to a kindergarten fight between two children, saying "Together with China we'll continue to strive for a reasonable approach and not an emotional one like when children in a kindergarten start fighting and no-one can stop them."
A plan proposed by both China and Russia calls for a joint freeze (freeze-for-freeze) — of North's missile tests, and U.S. and South Korean military exercises; the next step would be starting talks. The joint initiative of Russia and China envisages the involved parties' commitment to "four nos": concerning regime change, regime collapse, accelerated reunification, and military deployment north of the thirty-eighth parallel.[not in citation given]
On September 6, Donald Trump, after a telephone conversation with China′s Xi Jinping, said that the United States would not tolerate North Korea′s provocations, although military action was not his "first choice".
On September 10, the Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Jens Stoltenberg said in an interview with BBC television: "The reckless behavior of North Korea is a global threat and requires a global response and that of course also includes NATO"; when asked whether an attack on the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam would trigger NATO's Article 5, he said: "I will not speculate about whether Article 5 will be applied in such a situation."
Missile test over Japan on September 15[edit | edit source]
On September 14, North Korea issued a threat to "sink" Japan, and turn the US to "ashes and darkness". The statement drew strong condemnation from Yoshihide Suga, who described the speech as "extremely provocative and egregious". The next day, an IRBM was fired from near Pyongyang and flew over Hokkaido, Japan before splashing down in the western Pacific about two thousand kilometers off Cape Erimo at about 7:16 AM local time.
The missile traveled 3,700 kilometres (2,300 mi) achieving a maximum apogee of 770 kilometres (480 mi) during its 19 minute flight. It is the furthest any North Korean IRBM missile has gone above and beyond Japan. On September 18, North Korea announced that any further sanctions would only cause acceleration of their nuclear program.
U.S. and China agree on "pressure"[edit | edit source]
On September 18, the White House said president Donald Trump and Chinese president Xi Jinping had discussed North Korea's continued nuclear weapons and ballistic missile tests and committed to "maximising pressure on North Korea through vigorous enforcement" of UN Security Council resolutions on North Korea; North Korea said the sanctions would accelerate its nuclear program.
Donald Trump's speech at UN General Assembly, Kim Jong-un's response, and further developments[edit | edit source]
On September 19, Donald Trump, in his first address to the United Nations General Assembly, said that the United States: "if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. Rocket Man [Kim Jong-un] is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime. The United States is ready, willing and able, but hopefully this will not be necessary." Also, without mentioning it by name, Donald Trump criticised China for maintaining relations with NK, calling it "an outrage that some nations would not only trade with such a regime, but would arm, supply, and financially support a country that imperils the world with nuclear conflict".
On September 20, U.S. president Donald Trump signed an executive order that further toughened U.S. sanctions against North Korea: the U.S. Treasury was thereby authorised to target firms and financial institutions conducting business with NK. Commenting on the executive order, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said, "Foreign financial institutions are now on notice that going forward they can choose to do business with the United States or North Korea, but not both."
On September 21, responding directly for the first time to President Trump’s threat, North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un in his capacity of Chairman of State Affairs of DPRK called Trump a "mentally deranged U.S. dotard" and vowed the "highest level of hard-line countermeasure in history." (The ad hominem insults aside, no reference was made to the "hostile policy" of the United States, a staple of North Korean statements otherwise.) Foreign minister Ri Yong-ho likewise alluded to Trump as a barking dog, and furthermore remarked that North Korea might be considering the largest test of a hydrogen bomb ever in the Pacific Ocean, which would constitute the first atmospheric nuclear test in the world since 1980 (last performed by China).
On September 25, North Korea's Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho accused Trump of declaring war on his country, referring to Trump's recent tweet that North Korea "won't be around much longer." The White House responded that the USA has not declared war.
On September 30, Rex Tillerson stated while on a trip to China, that the U.S and North Korea were in "direct contact". "We have lines of communications to Pyongyang" he said, "We're not in a dark situation". He further stated that the U.S was "probing" the possibility of direct talks. "So stay tuned". The Associated Press has claimed that a long-used back-channel has been re-opened in the past months, the 'New York Channel', facilitating communication between Washington and Pyongyang. The next day however, Trump made a series of posts on Twitter which seemed to undermine Tillerson's efforts, claiming that Tillerson was "wasting his time" trying to negotiate with North Korea and that "we'll do what has to be done".
Former CIA Director John O. Brennan, during a Q&A session at Fordham University on October 18, remarked that "I think the prospects of military conflict in the Korean peninsula are greater than they have been in several decades... I don't think it's likely or probable, but if it's a 1-in-4 or 1-in-5 chance, that's too high."
Argument about nuclear armament of South Korea and Japan[edit | edit source]
An argument emerged in both South Korea and Japan about the nuclear option, driven by worry that the United States might hesitate to defend the countries if doing so might provoke a missile launched from the North at major U.S. cities. In South Korea, polls show that 60 percent of the population favors building nuclear weapons, and that nearly 70 percent want the United States to reintroduce tactical nuclear weapons, which were withdrawn in the 90s. In October, Hong Jun-pyo, one of the leading South Korean opposition figures, argued "only by deploying tactical nuclear weapons on South Korean territory can we negotiate with North Korea on an equal footing." Republican Senator John McCain urged that the U.S. should consider deploying nuclear weapons to South Korea. Former United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger mentioned “If North Korea continues to have nuclear weapons, nuclear weapons must spread in the rest of Asia.”
See also[edit | edit source]
Notes[edit | edit source]
References[edit | edit source]
Further reading[edit | edit source]