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North Korea Threatens Regional Stability

Michael Johnson

As North Korean citizens marked the 101st birthday of Kim Il-sung on Monday, their leaders continued to escalate tensions in the region. Over the past few weeks, Pyongyang has taken provocative actions including canceling the armistice agreement and threatening war with the U.S. and South Korea.

The North Korean military appears to be ready to test launch a Musudan ballistic missile. The Musudan design resembles that used by the Soviets in the 1960s and could have a range of up to 3,500 miles. A launch would not be able to hit the U.S. mainland but could threaten American allies in the region. A RAND Corporation report said that while “missile’s technology is still close to the technical limits…its performance is state-of-the-art.” A Musudan weighs nearly the same as a Scud-based Nodong missile, but has more than double the range. The test launch of such a missile would violate UN Security Council resolutions and would deepen the crisis.

A vehicle carries a missile in Pyongyang during a ceremony commemorating Kim Il-sung. (Credit: AP/David Guttenfelder)

This latest provocation comes after a string of other North Korean actions over the past few weeks. In early March, Pyongyang warned it might launch a strike against the U.S. over ever tightening UN sanctions. The North warned foreign diplomats to leave Pyongyang and also closed the Kaesong industrial complex, an important source of hard currency for the communist state. With little transparency at the top of the North’s leadership, its hard to know who is in charge. Analysts see the inexperienced Kim Jong Un’s uncle and aunt, Jang Sung-taek and Kim Kyong-hui, behind the escalations, as the family tries to consolidate power at home.

The U.S. and its allies have taken limited steps to prepare for a conflict. The Japanese Defense Ministry set up a Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC-3) missile battery in Tokyo and threatened to intercept any missile heading for Japan. U.S. forces also deployed the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System (THAAD) to Guam, a battery that successfully shot down a medium-range ballistic missile during an exercise last october.

Some analysts suggest that South Korea could buy the Israeli made Iron Dome system for protection. Iron Dome is designed to shoot down smaller rockets and artillery shells, providing a first tier system to combat short-range threats. Whether it is the Iron Dome or the longer range Patriot interceptor, new missile defense technology continues to constitute an important pillar of America’s defense.