North Korea’s threat comes from three factors: the unpredictability of its leader, Kim Jong Un; its ongoing nuclear weapons program; and its large amount of conventional weapons. Despite the difficulty it has seen in testing and its lack of large stockpiles of fissile material, North Korea’s nuclear program remains a major concern. North Korea appears to have jump-started the process of getting its plutonium reactor at Yongbon back online, but it will possibly take years to produce enough material for new weapons. At present, North Korea is estimated to have enough plutonium for 10 nuclear warheads, but Pyongyang’s ability to shrink down a nuclear warhead to the size where it would fit on a missile has advanced significantly and the country theoretically maintains rudimentary delivery methods within the region. There is also concern that North Korea could sell its weapons and/or weapons technology to third parties.
Even in light of Pyongyang’s nuclear capacity, North Korea’s large array of missiles and rockets remain a considerable threat to the peace and stability of the region. Of those conventional weapons, North Korea’s short-range Scud and Rodong missiles pose the greatest risk to U.S. assets in the area, given their high number and accuracy. With an estimated 1,800-mile range, the Musudan medium-range missile — which is mostly likely the type moved to the North Korean cost on Thursday — also may pose a significant threat, but its effectiveness has been questioned given the missile’s lack of prominent testing.
North Korea’s longer range missiles — the Taepodong-2 and Uhna rocket — are less reliable, both in accuracy and in performance. In 2006, a test of the Taepodong-2 completely failed, as did its use in an attempt to place a satellite in orbit in 2009. In Dec. 2012, North Korea did successfully test the Unha rocket, claiming to use it to a satellite in orbit. Estimates of the range for the Unha places it at approximately 4,500 miles — able to reach the U.S. West Coast — although experts have said that it is highly unlikely that North Korean missiles can hit the U.S. mainland and the Unha’s accuracy is completely unknown.
In any case, it is more likely that the launch of North Korean missiles would be a threat to U.S. allies and assets in the region, including South Korea and Japan. South Korea is well-within range of the shortest range missiles, with Seoul being only 35 miles from the Demilitarized Zone. That short distance also lends itself to the possibility that North Korea could drop a nuclear bomb on the country, rather than launch a nuclear warhead. Japan, while not particularly caught in this current spiral, has also been on the receiving end of North Korea’s threats. The two countries are home to a combined 64,000 U.S. forces, stationed in bases at Okinawa, the DMZ, and other locations.
In response to the DPRK’s provocations, the Pentagon on Wednesday announced the early deployment of a missile defense system to Guam. The deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense Missile (THAAD) system has been in the works since at least 2009, but the sped up positioning can be seen as a “better safe than sorry” approach to countering Pyongyang’s threats. Earlier this week, the U.S. also moved two anti-missile ships — the U.S.S. John S. McCain and U.S.S. Decatur — into position off the Korean coast.
Whether or not the North Koreans will follow through on their threat is the question that’s hanging over all responses to the saber-rattling from Pyongyang. Given the frequency that such incidences have occurred in the past, many experts believe this to be another attempt to gain food aid or attention. Hwang Jihwan, a North Korea expert at the University of Seoul, said in an interview with the Associated Press that Pyongyang “is keeping tension and crisis alive to raise stakes ahead of possible future talks with the United States.” Likewise, Vanderbilt University’s James Auer is of the belief that the whole thing is an attempt to distract from the malnutrition and environment of repression in the state.
But there is reason to be concerned as the North Koreans have recently announced an end to the 1953 Armistice Agreement and pledged to attack the U.S. and its allies in the region. The Obama administration appears to be taking the situation very seriously having already announced the revival of a battery of missile interceptors in Alaska to protect the West Coast. The defensive maneuvers are coming amid reports that the administration is taking greater precautions in showing force towards North Korea, out of fear that a miscommunication would drive Kim Jong-Un into taking rash action. That inability to predict accurately just what action the North will take is what has made this most recent series of escalations the most worrying since the end of the Korean War.