The Escalation Phase



Based on earlier cycles, it was pretty easy to predict that UNSC Resolution 2270 would result in escalatory rhetoric and further military tests. Earlier in the week, the Financial Times went so far as to offer the bold headline that Kim Jong Un had revealed a plan for a fifth nuclear test. This conclusion—which most other news outlets did not reach—led us to look more closely at the statements attributed to Kim Jong Un since the passage of 2270 on March 2. These statements reveal two messages: a strong focus on the development of new capabilities, some of which may or may not actually exist; and a lot of apparently escalatory rhetoric which on closer inspection is designed to deter.

The news stories from Rodong Shinmun—quite naturally focused on military appearances—are the following:

  • March 4, Kim Jong Un Guides Test-fire of New Multiple Launch Rocket System
  • March 9, Kim Jong Un Guides Work for Mounting Nuclear Warheads on Ballistic Rockets
  • March 11, Kim Jong Un Watches KPA Tank Crews’ Competition-2016
  • March 11, Kim Jong Un Watches Ballistic Rocket Launch Drill of Strategic Force of KPA
  • March 15, Kim Jong Un Guides Ballistic Rocket’s Reentry Environmental Simulation

These appearances were designed to showcase a new capability, which included:

  • a large-caliber (probably 300-400mm) artillery rocket system (see Jeff Lewis at 38North);
  • the miniaturization that would make a weapon deliverable, replete with pictures (again, Jeff Lewis at 38North);
  • heat-resistant materials that would permit the re-entry required of a missile (as opposed to a satellite);
  • the promise to flight-test of missiles capable of carrying a weapon. Such tests could include missiles with ranges that would constitute a threat to the US in the region or even the homeland such as the Nodong-C or NK-08, which has not been flight-tested to date. But it could also be a warning that North Korea is entertaining the development of a tactical nuclear capability (as Van Jackson has argued, again at 38North).

It was at his last appearance on March 15 that Kim Jong Un made the claim that the FT interpreted as foreshadowing an imminent fifth test: “Declaring that a nuclear warhead explosion test and a test-fire of several types of ballistic rockets capable of carrying nuclear warheads will be conducted in a short time to further increase the reliability of nuclear attack capability…”

To what end are these forces being deployed (where they exist)? A closer analysis reveals the ongoing concern of the regime about the joint US-ROK exercises. These exercises were not only enlarged over the past, but were preceded by a flurry of coverage in both the Korean and US press about the aim of practicing surgical strikes against the North Korean nuclear program and exercises to decapitate the leadership (see, for example, Anna Fifield at the Washington Post).

In Kim Jong Un’s appearances, all mentions of “pre-emption” were in fact coupled with concerns that it was the US and the ROK that might pre-empt. In his March 4 appearance, he talked about gearing up for pre-emption, but after noting that “…the enemies are intent on such last-ditch attempt as ‘beheading operation’ and ‘collapse of social system’ while working hard to violate the dignity and sovereignty of the DPRK and its right to existence.” In another appearance, he argued that “our self-defensive countermeasures should adopt a more preemptive and offensive mode,” but in the context of claims that the US and ROK were threatening outright nuclear war. At the tank exercises, he said that “if the enemies dare preempt an attack on our inviolable land, we should mercilessly wipe them out.” At his last appearance Kim Jong Un stated that “if they destroy even a single tree or a blade of grass in our inviolable territory, I will issue a prompt order to launch attack with all military strike means including nuclear weapons and strike the Park regime and hordes of the puppet military with deadly baptism of fire so that they may not exist any longer.”

Are these florid statements credible? No. Should we nonetheless be concerned about the stability of the Korean peninsula? More than a month ago, to be sure. But not because the North is likely to take risks but rather because the leadership—or military—miscalculates some move in the South. Maybe the Chinese are right when they plead for calm.

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