Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

AdChoices

NORTH KOREA

Korean conflict: What’s happening, and what could happen next

Get caught up on the escalating war of words over Pyongyang’s weapons program and what the United States, South Korea and Asian nations are doing about it

An undated picture released from North Korea’s official news agency on March 11, 2016, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-un attending a mobile drill for ballistic rocket launch at an undisclosed location.


The latest

  • South Korea’s military fired warning shots at a suspected drone from North Korea on Tuesday amid tension over Pyongyang’s latest missile test.
  • The identity of the object remained unclear, the military said, but Yonhap news agency said it was possibly a drone, more than 90 shots were fired in return and it disappeared from radar screens.
  • On Sunday, the North conducted another test of the ground-to-ground Pukguksong-2 missile, which Pyongyang calls a “mid-to-long-range” ballistic missile. Leader Kim Jong-un reportedly said the launch was a success, “approved the deployment of this weapon system for action” and said that it should “be rapidly mass-produced.”
  • But South Korean defense officials said Monday that the missile was a medium-range ballistic missile that cannot fly far enough to strike U.S. military bases in Guam, as analysts had feared.
  • The United States has been trying to persuade China, North Korea’s lone major ally, to do more to rein in North Korea, which has conducted dozens of missile launches and tested two nuclear bombs since the start of last year.



The basics

Tensions on the Korean Peninsula have escalated in the past few months after North Korea launched missile tests – some successful, others not – that purportedly showed increasing sophistication in the nuclear state’s weapons program. If estimates of the Korean weapons program are correct, an increasing area of the world (including Canada) would be within range of the North’s missiles.

North Korean potential missile ranges

Scud B/C/ER:

290-965 kms

Musudan:

3,541 kms

1

4

KN-11:

965 kms

KN-14:

9,978 kms

2

5

Nodong:

1,287 kms

KN-08:

11,587 kms

3

6

6

India

5

4

Russia

China

3

2

North

Korea

1

Australia

Canada

Japan

U.S.

Estimated

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: NEW YORK TIMES

North Korean potential missile ranges

North Korean potential missile ranges

North Korean potential missile ranges

Scud B/C/ER:

290-965 kms

Scud B/C/ER:

290-965 kms

Scud B/C/ER:

290-965 kms

Musudan:

3,541 kms

Musudan:

3,541 kms

Musudan:

3,541 kms

1

1

1

4

4

4

KN-11:

965 kms

KN-11:

965 kms

KN-11:

965 kms

KN-14:

9,978 kms

KN-14:

9,978 kms

KN-14:

9,978 kms

2

2

2

5

5

5

Nodong:

1,287 kms

Nodong:

1,287 kms

Nodong:

1,287 kms

KN-08:

11,587 kms

KN-08:

11,587 kms

KN-08:

11,587 kms

3

3

3

6

6

6

6

6

6

India

India

India

5

5

5

4

4

4

Russia

Russia

Russia

China

China

China

3

3

3

2

2

2

North

Korea

North

Korea

North

Korea

1

1

1

Australia

Australia

Australia

Canada

Canada

Canada

Japan

Japan

Japan

U.S.

U.S.

U.S.

Estimated

Estimated

Estimated

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: NEW YORK TIMES

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: NEW YORK TIMES

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: NEW YORK TIMES

North Korean potential missile ranges

Scud B/C/ER: 290-965 kms

1

6

India

KN-11: 965 kms

5

2

Nodong: 1,287 kms

4

3

Russia

China

3

Musudan: 3,541 kms

4

2

KN-14: 9,978 kms

5

North

Korea

1

KN-08: 11,587 kms

6

Australia

Canada

Japan

U.S.

Estimated

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: NEW YORK TIMES

In response to missile tests in March, South Korea authorized the United States to begin building its Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) missile defence system in the country, which China – a country with fraught relations with the new Trump administration in Washington – characterized as a provocation.

Robert Litwak of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, who tracks this potentially deadly interplay, told The New York Times earlier this year that what is playing out is “the Cuban missile crisis in slow motion.” But the slow-motion part appears to be speeding up. Mr. Trump and his aides have made it clear that the United States will no longer tolerate the incremental advances that have moved Korean leader Kim Jong-un so close to his goals.

Tempting as the analogies to Cuba may be, Mr. Kim is probably thinking of another nuclear negotiation – with Libya, in 2003. Its leader, Moammar Gadhafi, 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.)



A portrait of U.S. President Donald Trump is displayed as South Korean protesters stage a rally denouncing the United States’s policy against North Korea near the U.S. embassy in Seoul on April 12, 2017.

What the U.S. is doing

In April, U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence made a 10-day Asian trip, partly intended as a U.S. show of force over North Korea’s weapons tests, issuing toughly worded warnings to North Korea in South Korea, Japan, Indonesia and Australia. In South Korea, he made an unannounced trip to the Demilitarized Zone and reminded Pyongyang of the recent American missile strike against a Syrian airfield, saying it showed U.S. President Donald Trump was not to be trifled with:

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

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. Mr. Trump has also escalated tough language on North Korea on social media:




What Trump’s options are

Mr. Trump’s options appear limited in dealing with a challenge that has vexed his Oval Office predecessors. Most options fall into four categories: economic sanctions, covert action, diplomatic negotiations and military force.


Economic sanctions

North Korea is already among the most heavily sanctioned nations, facing numerous strictures to limit its ability to conduct commerce, participate in international finance and trade in weapons and other contraband. Despite those measures, “most analysts agree that U.S. and multilateral sanctions have not prevented North Korea from advancing its fledgling nuclear weapons capability,” said a report last year from the U.S. Congressional Research Service.

Reuters reported in April that Mr. Trump is focusing his North Korea strategy for now on tougher sanctions, possibly including an oil embargo, banning its airline, intercepting cargo ships and punishing Chinese banks doing business with Pyongyang, U.S. officials said. But the U.S. officials expressed doubt about how much farther China is willing to go: Beijing has long feared that economic collapse in North Korea would flood China with refugees and leave it to deal with chaos on the Korean peninsula.


Covert action

The United States, with help from Israel, temporarily set back Iran’s nuclear program via a computer virus called Stuxnet, which destroyed thousands of centrifuges used to enrich uranium. The United States tried, but failed, to deploy a version of the Stuxnet virus to attack North Korea’s nuclear weapons program in 2009-2010, Reuters reported in 2015.

Another semi-covert approach would be for Washington to use electronic warfare or cyber attacks to disable North Korean missiles during or shortly after their launch. The high failure rate of the North’s missile tests has prompted speculation that the United States is already doing so.


Diplomacy

The Trump administration has not indicated publicly it is interested in reviving moribund diplomatic negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear and missile programs. There have been no official negotiations for seven years. China, alarmed at rising U.S.-North Korea tensions, has called for talks leading to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.


Military force

Military options available to Mr. Trump range from a sea blockade aimed at enforcing sanctions to cruise missile strikes on nuclear and missile facilities to a broader campaign aimed at overthrowing Mr. Kim. How North Korea would respond to even a limited strike is unknown, but it threatened on Friday to “ruthlessly ravage” the United States if Washington chooses to attack.

On his visit to the demilitarized zone, Mr. Pence raised the prospect of military intervention, pointing to Mr. Trump’s recent actions in Syria (where he issued an air strike on a government-controlled airfield) and Afghanistan (where he authorized the military to drop the “mother of all bombs” on a cave system used by Islamic State). “North Korea would do well not to test his resolve,” or the U.S. armed forces in the region, Mr. Pence said.



North Korean leader Kim Jong-un meets scientists and technicians in the field of nuclear-weapons research in this undated photo released by North Korea’s official news agency on March 9, 2016.

What Pyongyang is doing

Mr. Kim’s goals are twofold: shrinking a nuclear weapon to a size that can fit atop a long-range missile, and developing a hydrogen bomb, with up to 1,000 times the power than the Hiroshima-style weapons he has built so far. Getting a missile capable of striking the mainland United States would require a flight of 8,000 km or more and technology to ensure a warhead’s stable re-entry into the atmosphere. Any missile with such range would also be able to strike much of western and northern Canada.

Pyongyang’s ambitions hit a major setback on April 16, when a midrange missile test apparently failed seconds after takeoff. But the North was much more positive about a May 14 missile test, which experts said signalled major advances in developing an intercontinental ballistic missile, such as mastery of re-entry technology and better engine performance.

The actual nature of the North’s weapons program is hard to ascertain, given how carefully Mr. Kim and the military have managed information for propaganda purposes. The Kim family, which has ruled the country for three generations, has entrenched its rule by portraying the country as being relentlessly under siege, leaving its people unable to distinguish between daily hyperbole and the reality of an increasingly tense situation.

During the recent standoff, senior North Korean officials have reiterated rhetorical warnings that the situation is escalating, and said the missile tests were far from over. “We’ll be conducting more missile tests on a weekly, monthly and yearly basis,” Vice Foreign Minister Han Song-ryol said in an interview with the BBC released on April 18.



South Korea’s President Moon Jae-In attends an emergency meeting of the National Security Council in Seoul on May 14, 2017.

What Seoul is doing

Tensions with the North re-emerged this year as South Korea grappled with a severe political crisis and the election of a new president.

Moon Jae-in, a liberal former human rights lawyer, was sworn in on May 11 only hours after his election was declared. He skipped the usual two-month transition because he was chosen in a special election after the last elected office-holder, Park Geun-hye, was removed by a court and jailed on corruption charges.

Mr. Moon, whose election set up the South’s first liberal government in a decade, made a campaign vow to reconsider the THAAD deployment that was authorized by his predecessors. He favours closer ties with North Korea, saying hard-line approaches failed to prevent the North’s development of nuclear-armed missiles and only reduced South Korea’s voice in international efforts to counter North Korea.



What China is doing

The recent surge in tensions on the Korean Peninsula finds Beijing on the outs with both North Korea, over the missile tests, and South Korea, over Seoul’s deploying of THAAD. Beijing says the advanced U.S. anti-missile system threatens its own security by allowing the U.S. to monitor flights and other activity in northeastern China. Beijing retaliated against South Korean businesses, while its military threatened to take unspecified action in response. It remains to be seen if Mr. Moon’s election in South Korea will mollify the Chinese on the THAAD issue.

North Korea has repeatedly ignored China’s calls for denuclearization and other steps to calm tensions on the peninsula, and relations between the two are believed to have sunk to their lowest level in years. China remains North Korea’s chief source of fuel and food imports, but Pyongyang seems to have calculated that Beijing’s fears of a collapse of Kim Jong Un’s hard-line communist regime override any such snubs.

For now, China has called for a return to multi-sided talks that ended in a stalemate in 2009, during the rule of North Korea’s previous leader, Kim Jong-il. But many critics have yet to be convinced by Beijing’s insistence that its influence with Pyongyang has been exaggerated. The United States and its allies are putting China under pressure to do more in the form of economic sanctions against North Korea.


MORE FROM THE GLOBE AND MAIL


Report Typo/Error

Next story

loading