North Korea warned the US and South Korea of a “second Korean War” if they went ahead with their annual Ulchi-Freedom Guardian military exercises which commenced last Monday. This was in the backdrop of a recent heated exchange of fiery rhetoric between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un regarding missile tests by North Korea where both threatened to turn each other’s territory into a nuclear wasteland.
North Korea in spite of its military disadvantage vis-à-vis the US and South Korea, with limited support from China and its possession of nuclear weapons, does not seem to be backing down from its blatant disregard of US-led threats and sanctions. Yesterday the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the official mouthpiece of the North Korean leadership, released images of Kim Jong Un standing besides what appears to be a blueprint of a new three-stage intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) called the Hwasong-13 which if operational experts estimate could have a range of as much as 12,000 km, capable of hitting the whole US mainland. This would be a significant improvement over the Hwasong-14 tested twice in July which expert say probably has a range of 10000 km that could strike parts of the continental US but not the East coast.
These developments were despite President Trump claiming that Kim Jong Un had learnt his lessons by not carrying out his previous threat striking the US territory of Guam. These images are a clear message from the North Korean leadership about their dedication towards safeguarding their survivability at any cost. This was also a show of strength against the US-South Korean war games on the Korean peninsula which both the Pentagon and South Korea claim are defensive in nature but are perceived by the North as pretexts for an invasion. These releases by the KCNA seem to highlight North Korea’s domestic military-industrial base. The Hwasong-1 missile seems to be an improvement over the KN-08 missile, another three-stage variant whose dummy models had been displayed previously at military parades. The Hwasong-13 however seems to have a new design for the main booster unit that clusters two engines. A different photograph showed the Supreme Leader standing next to a rocket casing which seemed to be made from a material that could include plastic which would be meant to decrease weight and increase range.
There was also a blueprint for the Pukguksong-3, a new submarine launched solid-fuel intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) in development. It is clear from these developments and the North’s nuclear program that the purpose of these missiles is to arm them with nukes in case of a war with the US. All major powers in the region have expressed concern over the North’s nuclear warmongering with the US. China and South Korea both have been against the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Aerial Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea with Seoul saying it might force Pyongyang to escalate its nuclear program and China fears it would upset the balance of power in the region as it would give the US an edge if conflict breaks out.
Thousands of US troops are already stationed in South Korea and Japan for such an eventuality and THAAD would just add to Beijing and Pyongyang’s insecurities. So the North’s missile developments and war rhetoric are a means for the regime in Pyongyang to keep up with the conventional developments in the South. This in itself presents a security dilemma as the cost of North Korea giving up its nuclear arsenal and the means to deliver them might be a repeat of what happened in Iraq and Libya when they stopped their development of nuclear weapons. China too does not want a regime change in Pyongyang, not only would it mean a refugee crisis on its border and the outbreak of pandemics but also a repeat of what happened in Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, which would mean a US-friendly regime at China’s doorstep. This is why China has not always fully enforced sanctions on its neighbor; it is in a sort of a mutual hostage situation. The escalation ladder for North Korea is pretty dangerous; it is artillery and then nuclear weapons, with everything in the middle just to buy time.