How a homemade tool helped North Korea’s missile program


SEOUL, (Reuters) – In 2009, a pop video from North Korea celebrated a new national hero – one that outside experts would later realize was at the heart of the secretive state’s banned nuclear and missile programs.

That hero, widely available in factories across the world, was the Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machine.

Big, grey and boxy, CNC machines use pre-programmed guides to produce intricate parts for everything from automobiles and mobile phones to furniture and clothes. They offer accuracy that human machine tool operators are unable to achieve.

In North Korea, thanks to a combination of homemade technology and reverse engineering, the machines now play a critical role in the weapons programs. They allow Kim Jong Un to build nuclear bombs and missiles without relying as heavily on outside technical aid or imports.

Nuclear weapons experts say this has helped him accelerate missile and nuclear testing despite international sanctions on the transfer of sensitive equipment. (Graphics on ‘Nuclear North Korea – here)

“North Korea’s centrifuges and new missiles all depend on components made with CNC machine tools,” said Jeffrey Lewis, head of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of Strategic Studies at Monterey, California.

“(They) are the essential underlying technology for producing missiles and nuclear weapons,” said Lewis.

Since 1996, CNC machines have been included in the Wassenaar Arrangement – an international arms control regime aimed at stopping the proliferation of equipment with both civilian and military uses. North Korea is not a signatory.

The country’s celebrations of its CNC technology have been fulsome. Hundreds of dancers in luminous orange and green performed the CNC pop song, titled “Break through the cutting edge,” at a Korean Workers’ Party celebration in 2010. In 2012, the year the South Korean hit “Gangnam Style” was released, the North’s CNC title was on karaoke machines nationwide, according to Choson Exchange, a Singapore-based company that trains North Koreans in business skills. The official video for the song opens with a long-range North Korean rocket soaring into a blue sky.


North Korea likely started to develop its own CNC machines in the early 1990s as part of a drive to build sophisticated missiles and nuclear weapons, nuclear experts say. It probably learned how to make them by taking apart machines it had imported from the Soviet Union.

Its first homemade CNC machine was introduced in 1995. Former leader Kim Jong Il gave the machine the “Ryonha” brand, according to a 2009 article in the country’s official newspaper, Rodong Sinmun. That was the first time state media mentioned the technology.

By 2009, the machines had become a mainstay of North Korean propaganda, as Pyongyang launched a nationwide campaign to boost domestic industry. Sanctions were mounting after its second nuclear test and a long-range missile launch that year.

North Koreans perform during mass games in Pyongyang, August 2011. Choson Exchange/via REUTERS

At the time, arms control experts raised concerns about a visit by former leader Kim Jong Il to a North Korean factory where homemade CNC machines appeared to be producing aluminum tubes. These could be used for nuclear centrifuges.

“By around 2010, it seemed they were capable of manufacturing various types of CNC machines,” said Kim Heung-gwang, a North Korean defector who taught at Pyongyang’s Hamhung Computer Technology University before defecting to South Korea.

But it wasn’t until 2013 that the Korea Ryonha Machinery Joint Venture Corporation, which produced the machines, was blacklisted by the U.N. Security Council for supporting the weapons programs.

And it was only in August this year that U.S. intelligence officials told Reuters North Korea likely has the ability to produce its own missile engines themselves. (Full Story)

Now, Kim Heung-gwang estimates, North Korea has about 15,000 CNC machines. He bases this on North Korean state media reports and photos as well as interviews with more than a dozen defectors who were scientists, professors or factory workers.


Pyongyang hailed the homemade machines as a triumph for its governing ideology of “Juche”, which champions self-sufficiency. But that wasn’t strictly true.

In August 2016, state media released photos of Kim Jong Un visiting a factory using CNC machines with the logo of Swiss engineering firm ABB ABB.UL, one of the leading players in the global CNC machine market. It’s not clear when or how the machine reached North Korea.

ABB said the firm respects all applicable trade sanctions against North Korea, and undertakes not to deliver ABB equipment to the country. “That said, we cannot rule out that some of our equipment may have been resold to DPR of Korea without our knowledge or permission,” the company said in response to a Reuters inquiry, using North Korea’s official title.

A United Nations panel monitoring sanctions on North Korea said in a report this year that Tengzhou Keyongda CNC Machine Tools Co of China had been a supplier of Pyongyang’s new CNC machines. A sales representative for Tengzhou Keyongda told Reuters the company stopped selling CNC machines to North Korea four years ago, and no longer maintains trade relations with the country.

Despite sanctions, CNC machines are commonplace across North Korean manufacturing and can be brought in through China and Russia, said Lee Choon-geun, a senior fellow at the Science and Technology Policy Institute in South Korea.

The biggest loophole has been that while some CNC machines are banned because they can have both military and civilian functions, most serve civilian industry. “Given their dual-use capability, you could even import the machines for other purposes, take them to pieces and use them however you want,” said Lee.

The CNC song highlights this in its opening line: “Whatever it is, once we put our mind to it, there’s a program to make it,” it says.

By James Pearson and Hyonhee Shin in SEOUL; Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick and David Brunnstrom in WASHINGTON, Lusha Zhang in BEIJING; Editing by Soyoung Kim, Lincoln Feast and Sara Ledwith


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After new North Korea missile test, U.S. says has military options


WASHINGTON/UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – The United States said on Friday it had military options to deal with North Korea, signalling its patience for diplomacy is wearing thin after Pyongyang fired a missile over Japan and into the Pacific Ocean for the second time in under a month.

In the latest attempt to deal with an issue that has repeatedly frustrated world powers, the U.N. Security Council condemned the “highly provocative” missile launch by North Korea.

(For a graphic on North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests, click

The council’s 15 members had already stepped up sanctions against North Korea in response to a nuclear bomb test it staged on Sept. 3, imposing a ban on North Korea’s textile exports and capping its imports of crude oil.

White House National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said the United States was fast running out of patience for diplomatic solutions on North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs.

“We’ve been kicking the can down the road, and we’re out of road,” McMaster told reporters, referring to Pyongyang’s repeated missile tests in defiance of international pressure.

“For those … who have been commenting on a lack of a military option, there is a military option,” he said, adding that it would not be the Trump administration’s preferred choice.

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, echoed McMaster’s strong rhetoric, even as Washington continued to emphasise that its preferred resolution to the crisis is through diplomacy and sanctions.

“What we are seeing is, they are continuing to be provocative, they are continuing to be reckless and at that point there’s not a whole lot the Security Council is going to be able to do from here, when you’ve cut 90 percent of the trade and 30 percent of the oil,” Haley said.

North Korea has launched dozens of missiles under leader Kim Jong Un as it accelerates a weapons program designed to give it the ability to target the United States with a powerful, nuclear-tipped missile.

U.S. President Donald Trump said that he is “more confident than ever that our options in addressing this threat are both effective and overwhelming.” He said at Joint Base Andrews near Washington that North Korea “has once again shown its utter contempt for its neighbours and for the entire world community.”


North Korea’s latest test missile flew over Hokkaido in northern Japan on Friday and landed in the Pacific about 2,000 km (1,240 miles) to the east, the Japanese government said.

It travelled about 3,700 km (2,300 miles) in total, according to South Korea’s military, far enough to reach the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam, which the North has threatened before.

“The range of this test was significant since North Korea demonstrated that it could reach Guam with this missile,” the Union of Concerned Scientists advocacy group said in a statement. However, the accuracy of the missile, still at an early stage of development, was low, it said.

A man watches a television broadcasting a news report on North Korea firing a missile that flew over Japan’s northern Hokkaido far out into the Pacific Ocean, in Seoul, South Korea, September 15, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Tillerson called on China, Pyongyang’s only ally, and Russia to apply more pressure on North Korea by “taking direct actions of their own.”

But Beijing pushed back.

Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying denied that China held the key to easing tension on the Korean peninsula and said that duty lay with the parties directly involved. She also reiterated China’s position that sanctions on North Korea are only effective if paired with talks.

North Korea staged its sixth and most powerful nuclear bomb test earlier this month and in July tested long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching at least parts of the U.S. mainland.

Last month, North Korea fired an intermediate range missile that also flew over Hokkaido into the ocean.

Warning announcements about the latest missile blared around 7 a.m. (2200 GMT Thursday) in parts of northern Japan, while many residents received alerts on their mobile phones or saw warnings on TV telling them to seek refuge.

The U.S. military said it had detected a single intermediate range ballistic missile but it did not pose a threat to North America or Guam.

On global markets, shares and other risk assets barely moved and gold fell as traders paid little attention to the latest missile test, shifting their focus to where and when interest rates will go up.


Trump has promised not to allow North Korea to threaten the United States with a nuclear-tipped missile.

Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, said the United States needed to begin talks with North Korea, something that Washington has so far ruled out.

“We called on our U.S. partners and others to implement political and diplomatic solutions that are provided for in the resolution,” Nebenzia told reporters after the Security Council meeting. “Without implementing this, we also will consider it as a non-compliance with the resolution.”

Asked about the prospect for direct talks, a White House spokesman said, ”As the president and his national security team have repeatedly said, now is not the time to talk to North Korea.”

South Korean President Moon Jae-in also said dialogue with the North was impossible at this point. He ordered officials to analyse and prepare for possible new North Korean threats, including electromagnetic pulse and biochemical attacks.

The United States and South Korea are technically still at war with North Korea because the 1950-53 Korean conflict ended with a truce and not a peace treaty. The North accuses the United States, which has 28,500 troops in South Korea, of planning to invade and regularly threatens to destroy it and its Asian allies.

Reporting by Jeff Mason and Michelle Nichols; Additional reporting by Hideyuki Sano, William Mallard, Tim Kelly and Chehui Peh in Tokyo, Jack Kim and Christine Kim in Seoul, Mohammad Zargham, Susan Heavey, Makini Brice and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Tom Miles in Geneva; Masha Tsvetkova and Polina Devitt in Moscow; Christian Shepherd in Beijing; Writing by Frances Kerry; Editing by Alistair Bell

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


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After North Korea missile, Britain and Japan agree closer security ties


TOKYO (Reuters) – Britain and Japan will pledge closer cooperation on Thursday on defence, cyber security and counter-terrorism as Prime Minster Theresa May looks to strengthen relations with one of her closest allies ahead of Brexit.

Visiting her Japanese counterpart, Shinzo Abe, as his country responds to the increasing military threat posed by North Korea, May toured Japan’s flagship Izumo helicopter carrier for a military briefing with Minister of Defence Itsunori Onodera before attending a national security meeting.

“My visit today is a sign of the growing cooperation and partnership we have on defence matters,” May told Onodera after inspecting an honour guard at the Yokosuka naval base near Tokyo, which is also home to the U.S. Navy Seventh Fleet carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan.

May and Abe will agree a joint declaration on security cooperation, including plans for British soldiers to take part in military exercises on Japanese soil and for collaboration to address the threat of cyber and militant attacks when Japan hosts the Olympics in 2020.

North Korea is expected to feature heavily in the talks after it launched a ballistic missile on Tuesday that passed over Japanese territory, prompting international condemnation.

The two leaders are expected to discuss the possibility of further sanctions on North Korea, May’s office said. May called on China to put more pressure on North Korea after she arrived in Japan on Wednesday.

The Global Times, a publication of the official People’s Daily of China’s ruling Communist Party, criticised May’s comment.

“Beijing does not need London to teach it how to deal with North Korea,” the newspaper said.

Following the security briefing, the focus of May’s trip is expected to return to trade and investment. She is keen to persuade nervy investors that Britain’s exit from the European Union will not make it a less attractive business partner.


Both May and Abe addressed a travelling delegation of British business leaders, and senior representatives from major Japanese investors in Britain, such as carmakers Nissan, Toyota and conglomerate Hitachi.

Abe told the gathering that May had assured him Britain’s negotiations on leaving the European Union (EU) would be transparent.

“The U.K.’s departure from the European Union has to be successful,” Abe said.

May said Japanese investment after Britain’s vote to leave the EU was a vote of confidence, and she pledged to build close trade ties with Japan.

“I very much welcome the commitment from Japanese companies such as Nissan, Toyota, Softbank and Hitachi,” May said.

“I am determined that we will seize the opportunity to become an ever more outward-looking global Britain, deepening our trade relations with old friends and new allies.”

During a two-hour train ride between Kyoto and Tokyo late on Wednesday, the two leaders discussed Brexit, with May talking Abe through the details of a series of papers published in recent weeks setting out her negotiating position.

Formal trade discussions are scheduled for later on Thursday, after which the leaders will hold a news conference.

May said on Wednesday Japan’s upcoming trade deal with the EU could offer a template for a future Japan-Britain trade agreement, the latest attempt to show investors that Brexit will not lead to an overnight change in business conditions.

Japan has been unusually open about its concerns over Brexit, worrying that 40 billion pounds ($51.68 billion) of Japanese investment in the British economy could suffer if trading conditions change abruptly when Britain leaves the bloc.

($1=0.7740 pounds)

Reporting by William James Editing; Additional reporting by Tim Kelly and Linda Sieg; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Robert Birsel

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


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Latest Missile Test Was Preparation For A Strike On Guam


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On Tuesday, North Korea conducted another weapons test by launching a missile over Japan’s Hokkaido Island, where the U.S. and Japan had been conducting military exercises. The incident set off sirens in northern Japan along with emergency text messages. North Korea is now saying that the launch was a warmup for action it plans to take against Guam:

The country’s state-run Korean Central News Agency reported leader Kim Jong Un presided over the dawn launch Tuesday of the “ultra-modern rocket system,” the first missile ever fired from the capital Pyongyang.

North Korean officials told CNN in Pyongyang that Kim was “very satisfied with the performance of the missile.”

The North Korean launch was “the first step of the military operation of the (North Korean military) in the Pacific and a meaningful prelude to containing Guam,” state media said.

On Wednesday, the U.S. conducted an allegedly pre-planned test intercept of a ballistic missile off of the coast of Hawaii. The government in Guam said the island’s threat level remains unchanged since the joint military exercises were expected to lead to a reaction from North Korea.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are now both calling for stronger sanctions against North Korea in order to draw Pyongyang to the negotiating table.

After President Trump offered North Korea “fire and fury” after an earlier test, he was more measured in his response to Tuesday’s test saying the North Korea was destabilizing the region before adding that “all options are on the table.” And this morning, he tweeted that “talking is not the answer.”

(Via CNN)


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Kim Jong Un called missile launch ‘meaningful prelude’ to containing Guam, North Korea says


North Korea said its dictator Kim Jong Un was present Tuesday for a flight test of a midrange ballistic missile designed to carry a nuclear payload that flew over U.S. ally Japan and splashed into the northern Pacific Ocean.  

The leader of the Hermit Kingdom has called for more ballistic missile launches into the Pacific — an apparent threat to the U.S. territory of Guam and a possible precursor to more missiles flying over Japan.

Kim expressed great satisfaction over what the North described as successful testing and said his country would continue to watch “U.S. demeanors” before it decided on future actions. He called the launch a “meaningful prelude” to containing Guam, which is home to key U.S. military bases that North Korea finds threatening, and said the country needs to conduct more missile launches into the Pacific to advance the capabilities of its strategic force, according to Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency.

The agency said Wednesday that the missile fired over Japan on Tuesday was the Hwasong-12 intermediate-range missile that the North recently threatened to fire into waters near Guam.

South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said the missile traveled around 1,677 miles and reached a maximum height of 341 miles as it flew over the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido.

The U.N. Security Council said it “strongly condemns” North Korea’s launch of the missile over Japan and is reiterating demands for Pyongyang to halt its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs.

The U.N.’s most powerful body approved the statement after an emergency meeting Tuesday on the missile test, calling North Korea’s actions “outrageous.”

The test came less than a month after the council imposed its toughest-yet sanctions on North Korea.

The statement doesn’t discuss any potential new sanctions but calls for strict implementation of existing ones. The council also says it’s committed to a peaceful, diplomatic and political solution to the situation.

North Korea isn’t on the 15-member council. 

President Trump said Tuesday that “all options are on the table” after North Korea launched the missile over Japan, an act that instantly renewed tensions in the region just days after the regime appeared to be backing down from threats against the U.S. and its allies. 


“The world has received North Korea’s latest message loud and clear: this regime has signaled its contempt for its neighbors, for all members of the United Nations, and for minimum standards of acceptable international behavior,” said Trump in a written statement released by the White House. 

“Threatening and destabilizing actions only increase the North Korean regime’s isolation in the region and among all nations of the world. All options are on the table,” the statement continued. 

The Associated Press contributed to this story.


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Exclusive: Japan seeks new U.S. missile radar as North Korea threat grows – sources


TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan is worried the United States has so far declined to arm it with a powerful new radar, arguing the decision makes the U.S. missile defence system it plans to install much less capable of countering a growing North Korean threat, three sources said.

Japan wants to have a land-based version of the Aegis ballistic missile defence (BMD) system operational by 2023 as a new layer of defence to help counter North Korea’s missile advances.

Yet, without the new powerful radar, known as Spy-6, Japan will have to field the system with existing radar technology that has less range than a new generation of BMD interceptor missiles, the sources who have knowledge of the discussion told Reuters.

That could mean that while the interceptor has enough range to strike a missile lofted high into space, the targeting radar may not be able to detect the threat until it is much closer.

Japanese officials have witnessed a demonstration of Spy-6 technology, which boosts the range of BMD radars dozens of times, but efforts to secure the equipment from their ally have come to naught.

“So far all we have got to do is smell the eel,” said one of the officials, referring to a savoury fried eel dish popular in Japan.

The military threat to Japan deepened on Tuesday when Pyongyang fired an intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM)over Japan’s northern Hokkaido island. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe slammed the action as “reckless” and “unprecedented.”

Japan’s Defence Ministry and the Pentagon did not immediately respond to requests for comment.


Washington’s reluctance to share the radar may make Tokyo feel more vulnerable to North Korean attack and blunt U.S. efforts to assure its Japan about its commitment to defend its East Asian ally to as tensions in the region intensify.

FILE PHOTO: The deckhouse of the Aegis Ashore Missile Defense System (AAMDS) at Deveselu air base, Romania, May 12, 2016. Inquam Photos/Adel Al-Haddad/viaFile Photo

The new U.S. Ambassador to Japan, William Hagerty, dubbed their security partnership as the “greatest on earth” in his first meeting with Abe on Aug 18.

The U.S.’s top general, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford described that alliance as “ironclad” in talks with the Chief of Staff of Japan’s Self Defence Forces, Admiral Katsutoshi Kawano the same day.

Still, a pledge to let Japan have Spy-6 has not been forthcoming. Japan has not yet placed an order for Aegis Ashore, but has informally asked Washington to let it have the new radar technology.

“There is no guarantee that Japan is going to get it,” said another of the sources. The U.S. Navy supports giving Japan the new radar, the source said, but may be thwarted by reluctance from the Missile Defence Agency, which is responsible for developing BMD technology.

Officials there are wary to release advanced technology, even to a close ally, before the United States has fielded the technology. The United States’ first Spy-6 equipped Aegis warship is not slated to begin operations before 2022, one of the sources said.

Tokyo will need permission to use Spy-6 well ahead of that roll out date to give the maker, Raytheon Co (RTN.N) and Aegis system integrator Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N) time to build and test the system.

Any decision to hold back Spy-6 could therefore add significantly to Japan’s already rising bill for missile defence by forcing it to pay to upgrade or replace Aegis Ashore systems after deployment.

Tokyo plans to build two Aegis Ashore batteries, costing around $700 million each without missiles, the sources said. That would mean its southwestern Okinawa island chain would likely be protected by one of Japan’s existing BMD warships.

The Aegis system’s new SM-3 Block IIA defensive missiles, designed to hit warheads Pyongyang may try to fire over its missile shield, can fly more than 2,000 km – about twice the distance of the current SM-3 missiles.

The interceptor missiles will cost around $30 million each, the sources added.

Reporting by Tim Kelly and Nobuhiro Kubo in TOKYO; Additional reporting by Idrees Ali in WASHINGTON; Editing by Lincoln Feast

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


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North Korea: ‘Japan missile was first step in Pacific operation’


A missile is seen taking off from a grassy field in a burst of burning fuel and smokeImage copyright

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North Korea’s official news agency distributed this photo, purportedly of the rocket launch

North Korea says its firing of a missile over Japan was “the first step” of military operations in the Pacific, signalling plans for more launches.

State media also repeated threats to the US Pacific island of Guam, which it called “an advanced base of invasion”.

The missile launched on Tuesday crossed Japan’s northern Hokkaido island, triggering public alerts to take cover, before landing in the sea.

The UN Security Council has unanimously condemned North Korea for its actions.

Meeting late on Tuesday in New York, the council called the launch “outrageous”, demanding North Korea cease all missile testing.

While the statement said the regime’s actions were a threat to all UN member states, it did not threaten new sanctions against Pyongyang.

Russia and China said US military activity in the region was partly to blame for the increase in tensions, and urged negotiations.

Arriving for a visit to Japan, British Prime Minister Theresa May on Wednesday called on China to put more pressure on North Korea, saying that Beijing had a key role in the international response to Pyongyang’s “reckless provocation”.

North Korea has repeatedly conducted missile launches in recent months, despite being barred from doing so under UN rules.

The latest, a domestically made Hwasong-12, was launched early on Tuesday Korean time from a site near Pyongyang.

It travelled some 2,700km (1,678 miles), at an unusually low height for North Korean missile tests, over Hokkaido before crashing about 1,180km off Japan’s eastern coast.

Japan sent out alerts telling people in Hokkaido to take cover. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe later called it “unprecedented, serious and a grave threat”.

Media playback is unsupported on your device

Media captionJapanese citizens are trying not to think about a missile attack

For the first time, North Korea’s official news agency KCNA admitted deliberately firing a ballistic missile across Japan. Previous projectiles which crossed the mainland were later claimed to have been satellite launches.

It said the launch was in direct response to joint US-South Korean military drills which are currently taking place, as well as to mark the anniversary of the Japan-Korea treaty of 1910, which saw Japanese forces annex the Korean peninsula.

KCNA, quoting leader Kim Jong-un, said that, “like a real war”, the latest drill was “the first step of the military operation of the KPA [Korean People’s Army] in the Pacific and a meaningful prelude to containing Guam”.

Image copyright

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North Korean news said Kim Jong-un had ordered further missile launches in the Pacific

Mr Kim has also ordered more rocket drills targeting the region, it said.

North Korea first threatened to fire missiles towards Guam – a major US military centre in the Pacific and where some 160,000 US citizens live – earlier this month.

US officials had suggested that the fact it had not carried out its threat so far was a sign of possible progress.

US President Donald Trump, in a statement released by the White House, said the world had “received North Korea’s latest message loud and clear”.

“This regime has signalled its contempt for its neighbours, for all members of the United Nations, and for minimum standards of acceptable international behaviour,” he said.

“Threatening and destabilising actions only increase the North Korean regime’s isolation in the region and among all nations of the world. All options are on the table.”

Earlier this month, President Trump warned Pyongyang would face “fire and fury” if it continued to threaten the US.

North Korea’s missile programme:

  • North Korea has been working on its missile programme for decades, with weapons based on the Soviet-developed Scud
  • It has conducted short- and medium-range tests on many occasions, sometimes to mark domestic events or at times of regional tension
  • In recent months the pace of testing has increased; experts say North Korea appears to be making significant advances towards its goal of building a reliable long-range nuclear-capable weapon
  • In July, North Korea launched two missiles which it said were Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) capable of hitting the US; experts believe they put parts of the US in range
  • There is no consensus on how close North Korea is to miniaturising a nuclear warhead to put on a missile

Have North Korea’s missile tests paid off?


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North Korea’s Japan Missile Flyover Calls Donald Trump’s Bluff


When North Korea launched a ballistic missile toward northern Japan’s Hokkaido Island late Monday, its trajectory was initially unclear. Fearing the worst, the Japanese government interrupted television programming and issued digital alerts advising locals to find shelter. Though the missile ultimately flew over Japan and landed in the northern Pacific Ocean after a roughly 1,700-mile journey, the flyover was a powerful symbol of North Korea’s resolute effort to develop its missile program in spite of longstanding international opposition.

North Korea has flown projectiles over Japan twice before. The first instance, in 1998, came with no warning; North Korea gave advance notice of the second, in 2009. The country couched both of those events as being part of satellite launches. Monday’s surprise launch came with no such explanation. But it fits into the larger context of North Korea’s rapidly escalating nuclear and missile ambitions—and, more alarmingly, it shows outright disdain for President Donald Trump’s recent bluster.

It was just a few weeks ago, after all, that Trump declared that further threats from North Korea would prompt “fire, fury, and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.” While the rhetoric seemed intended to cow North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, repeated threats against US territory Guam and Monday’s missile scare suggest that Trump’s words, along with recent military exercises conducted by the US and South Korea, had the exact opposite impact.

“It’s nothing out of the ordinary to do what North Korea did in terms of the frequency of the launches, but there may be an added motive in terms of responding to what they perceive as hostile actions, whether it’s US–South Korea military exercises this month or US–Japan exercises that are going on in the Hokkaido area as well,” says Frank Aum, a former Department of Defense senior adviser on North Korea. “Or it just may be a message to President Trump and the international community that they are undeterred.”

While the Japan flyover rightly garnered the most attention, other aspects of the launch seemed designed to provoke as well. For one, the missile did not have a so-called lofted trajectory, as many recent tests have. Instead of being aimed to reach a high altitude and cover less horizontal ground, the missile traveled on a trajectory more similar to what would actually be used in an attack. In the past North Korea has said it used lofted trajectories to keeps its tests from flying over neighboring countries.

The test also likely used a Hwasong-12 missile, a type of midrange rocket that North Korea would probably use in a launch targeted at or near Guam, a possibility the country has touted in recent weeks. South Korean officials also said after Monday’s test that the North launched the missile from Sunan, a populated area where Pyongyang International Airport is located. Since most other missile tests have come from more remote parts of North Korea, Monday’s test may indicate launch-system mobility, and faith that at least some missiles can be safely fired—as in, won’t explode on the launch pad—near the nation’s capital.

“This was the most provocative act possible that would get the least amount of direct responses back,” says James McKeon, a policy analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. “I would be shocked if Japan or South Korea or the United States actually did anything substantive beyond talking about increasing missile defenses or other tough talk. It’s a provocative behavior, and they’re doing it on purpose to stretch the boundary as far as possible.”

In the spirit of tough talk, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, promised a swift and appropriate response. President Trump released a carefully worded statement that took several steps back from his previous fire and fury: “The world has received North Korea’s latest message loud and clear: this regime has signaled its contempt for its neighbors, for all members of the United Nations, and for minimum standards of acceptable international behavior,” the statement reads, adding, “All options are on the table.”

As always, the region now hinges on how South Korea, Japan, and the US react. Reports on Tuesday indicated that South Korea was working on new plans to defend itself and invade Pyongyang in the event of a substantive North Korean strike on the country. Despite the Trump administration’s recently ramped up sanctions, isolation tactics, and rhetoric against the country, it still seemed caught off guard by the test. Just last week, secretary of state Rex Tillerson remarked that Pyongyang had “demonstrated some level of restraint that we have not seen in the past,” and Trump added that same day that he thought Kim Jong-un was beginning to respect the US.

‘The real question is what is President Trump’s response going to be?’ — Frank Aum, Former DOD Senior Adviser

This week’s missile test rebuffs that interpretation. “I don’t think [Tillerson] understands North Korea’s thinking. North Korea is very adept at incrementally ratcheting up the pressure to see what the response is,” Aum says. “They are going to continue with their tests and we can expect provocations for the rest of the year—it may ultimately get to a sixth North Korean nuclear test. So the real question is what President Trump’s response is going to be. If he doesn’t do anything, then that diminishes the credibility of our deterrence and makes him look weak. If he does do something along the lines of ‘fire and fury’ then we’re heading toward nuclear escalation, so either way it’s a bad situation.”

A growing consensus views open talks with North Korean officials, without preconditions, as one of the few viable courses of action left. “Every time they do a launch, especially such a provocative launch like this one, it reinforces the fact that we need to be talking to the North Koreans,” McKeon says.

“There is no military solution for a North Korea with nuclear weapons,” said US senator Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts), who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, in a statement. “So we must immediately and directly negotiate with Pyongyang for agreement to refrain from nuclear and ballistic missile testing in exchange for confidence building measures from the US to reassure the North Korean government that our military forces in the region are there only to deter and defend, not to attack North Korea.”

With so few options available, it seems clear that Trump’s scorched-earth bluster has not only failed to bring a tenuous situation any closer to a resolution but has actively made it worse. The question now is how much, if any, stable ground between the US and North Korea remains.


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North Korea Fired Missile Over Island Where US Did Military Exercises


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Over the weekend, North Korea continued to nurse their projectile-firing, nuke-obsessed ways by firing three short-range missiles that landed off the country’s east coast. They decided not to rest for long, for Monday has brought a report of a missile fired toward North Japan, which prompted the Japanese government to order its citizens (via a radio warning) to take cover in shelters. And they apparently did so with quite the strategy in mind, which — of course — involves a threat on a U.S. target.

Updates arrived fast and furious on the subject. First, the Associated Press provided more confirmation, via a South Korean news agency, which reported that an “unidentified missile” was fired by North Korea, and the BBC added that the projectile apparently landed in the sea of Japan. Not only that, but NBC News reported that the missile flew over Japan’s Hokkaido island before landing in the sea. This would be the same island where the U.S. and Japan conducted joint military exercises on Monday.

Coincidence? Not likely.

In March of this year, North Korea began to sporadically fire missiles in the direction of Japan. The first such instance, as confirmed by Kim Jong-un’s regime, was intended to be “target practice” for hitting U.S. military bases in Japan. It’s been awhile since Trump aggressively tweeted at North Korea, but we may see a renewed interest on his Twitter feed tonight.

(Via CNBC, NBC News, BBC & Associated Press)


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