North Korea nuclear crisis

North Korea considers missile attack on Guam, after Trump vows ‘fire and fury’ over nuke report

US intelligence report that Pyongyang has miniaturised nuclear warheads will prompt enhanced joint military operations by the US and allies, analysts say

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 August, 2017, 4:34am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 August, 2017, 11:29pm

North Korea said on Wednesday it is considering plans for a missile strike on the US Pacific territory of Guam, just hours after US President Donald Trump told the North that any threat to the United States would be met with “fire and fury”.

Pyongyang said it was “carefully examining” a plan to strike Guam, an island of around 162,000 in the western Pacific and the site of a US military base that hosts a submarine squadron, an airbase and a Coast Guard group.

The sharp ratcheting-up of tensions came after the revelation that US intelligence concluded North Korea had successfully developed technology to fire nuclear-tipped intercontinental missiles. That prompted Trump’s “fire and fury vow”.

Analysts said the development would likely lead to enhanced joint military operations by the US and its allies in the region.

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The Washington Post on Tuesday cited a confidential assessment by the US Defence Intelligence Agency that says North Korea crossed “a key threshold on the path to becoming a full-fledged nuclear power” with its ability to make miniaturised nuclear warheads. The new assessment follows a separate US government report estimating that Pyongyang possesses up to 60 nuclear weapons.

“The IC [intelligence community] assesses North Korea has produced nuclear weapons for ballistic missile delivery, to include delivery by ICBM-class missiles,” the DIA report said, according to the Washington Post.

“It’s likely that there will be more visible military components of a response that will be generated by this kind of development. There will be people advocating for military response measures,” said Scott Snyder, a senior fellow for Korea studies at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.

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Such a response would include “more overflights of nuclear capable aircraft, probably re-deployment of additional forces in the region, and some kind of enhanced naval presence in Northeast Asia” involving the US, South Korea and Japan.

“I don’t see American politicians will be able to accept” North Korea as a nuclear power even if defence strategists recognise that the US had been subjected to nuclear threats from China and the former Soviet Union for decades, Snyder added.

“It’s a political problem with such profound implications for American public perception.”

Comments by Trump shortly after the Washington Post report underscored the political reaction.

Trump lashed out at North Korea during a briefing from his golf course in New Jersey, saying further military provocations by North Korea would “be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen. [Kim Jong-un] has been very threatening beyond a normal state, and, as I said, they will be met with fire, fury and, frankly, power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.”

But Pyongyang appeared undeterred.

A Korean People’s Army (KPA) spokesman, in a statement carried by state-run KCNA news agency hours after Trump’s comments were reported, said the plan to attack Guam would be put into practice at any moment once leader Kim Jong-un made a decision.

In another statement citing a different military spokesman, North Korea also accused the United States of devising a “preventive war” and said any plans to execute this would be met with an “all-out war wiping out all the strongholds of enemies, including the US mainland”.

Trump on Wednesday followed up his warning to North Korea with a statement on the strength of the American nuclear arsenal, and an expression of hope that it would not need to be used.

“My first order as President was to renovate and modernize our nuclear arsenal. It is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before,” he wrote on Twitter. “Hopefully we will never have to use this power, but there will never be a time that we are not the most powerful nation in the world!”

Earlier, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that Trump was trying to send a strong message to North Korea when he said it would face “fire and fury” if it threatened the United States.

Speaking to reporters before landing in Guam, Tillerson said North Korea’s rhetoric had ratcheted up in the face of international opposition to its nuclear programme.

“So I think the president, what the president is doing is sending a strong message to North Korea in language that Kim Jong-un would understand, because he doesn’t seem to understand diplomatic language,” Tillerson said.

Canadian pastor Hyeon Soo Lim sentenced to hard labour for life by North Korean court as punishment for ‘human rights racket’

Separately on Wednesday, a Canadian pastor serving a life sentence with hard labour in North Korea was released on medical parole as a humanitarian gesture, the official KCNA news agency said.

Hyeon Soo-lim, 61, was freed on “sick bail”, the agency announced after a Canadian government delegation arrived in Pyongyang to discuss the case. A court ordered Lim’s release “from the humanitarian viewpoint”, it said in a brief two-paragraph report.

Lim was arrested in 2015 for allegedly meddling in North Korean state affairs. The South Korean-born pastor had been accused of subversive acts against Pyongyang, an allegation which Canadian authorities strongly denied.

Tension over North Korea’s nuclear capability had already risen to new heights after the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed a resolution over the weekend to expand sanctions aimed at cutting North Korea’s ability to fund its nuclear weapons programme.

The new resolution prohibits UN member states from buying coal, iron ore, and other key commodities from North Korea, a move that’s meant to cut the country’s export revenue by US$1 billion annually, according to the Security Council members.

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Few expect the Security Council’s united front to halt further progress by North Korea in its weapons programme.

The sanctions “would narrow the prospects for the programme, but I don’t think they would eliminate it”, Snyder said. “I have my doubts about the will and capacity of China to implement the sanctions fully, primarily because there will always be shadowy businesspeople willing to be paid for the enhanced risk that they’d be taking by trying to evade the enforcement regime.”

Richard Bush, director for East Asia policy studies at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, agreed that sanctions won’t completely halt North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, even with China’s government more engaged, because the weapons programme is Pyongyang’s highest priority.

However, Bush held out the possibility that China might be willing to cooperate more closely with the US, South Korea and Japan.

North Korea’s nuclear weapons capacity “affects China’s security as much as it does anyone else’s”, Bush said.

“There’s a crying need for more communication between the US and the Chinese on this. As the national security threat grows, the potential grows that China will see the need to communicate and coordinate more closely.”

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Whatever the response, both analysts expect more provocation by North Korea if the US intelligence turns out to be true.

“North Korea’s main mechanism for shaping the environment is to continue to test,” Snyder said. “The problem is that it’s going to be more emboldened by the idea that they’re closer to their objectives and that they can induce US acquiescence to the idea of a nuclear North Korea.”

“What we should be most concerned about isn’t the day they get the capability” to hit US cities with nuclear missiles, said Bush. “It’s more the day they use it to destabilise the situation on the Korean Peninsula through conventional means and psychological means.”

Bush cited a possible artillery barrage against a South Korean island as an example.

“They’ve done that before, but they’ll be emboldened to be more reckless.”

Additional reporting by Reuters and Agence France-Presse