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2017 Addendum
(July)

The big news for American Independence Day, the 4th July (5th in OZ) is that North Korea has launched a rocket that travelled vertically to reach an altitude of 2,802km (1,731 miles). It flew for 39 minutes before hitting a target in the sea 933km away.  Journalists immediately got out their atlas (or Google Earth) and determined that its range is projected to be sufficient to reach: northern Australia; Alaska and western Canada, Pakistan and even Finland in addition of course to: China, Russia, Japan, India and other neighbours.  So it's being styled an ICBM  (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile).

Yet I'm not so sure as the journalists that this is all.  I'm not a rocket scientist but I have a basic grasp of the physics and this rocket now seems more than capable of achieving Earth orbit.  After all the ISS, the International Space Station, orbits at around 400 km.  Remember that it was the Russians putting Yuri Gagarin into orbit and returning him to land alive in 1961 that scared the pants off J F Kennedy and changed him from a space sceptic, during his election campaign, to an advocate overnight.  Now the Russians could place one or more nuclear warheads into orbit "and return them safely to Earth" without burning up, thereby threatening any city on the planet.  

Suddenly the Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS) was born and Washington, and Hyannis Port, were within range of a Russian bomb.  Kennedy quickly committed billions to catch up and 'peacefully' put a man on the moon. The 'Cold War' was getting out of hand.  So in 1967 the Outer Space Treaty was drafted in which space was declared off limits for nuclear weapons by United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union (ratified 27 January 1967). Since then 107 countries have signed up. But North Korea is not among them.

If accurately reported this launch could put North Korea into the same club as India, France, China, Russia, the US and the UK (ICBMs only).  A couple of other countries have a nuclear weapon (Pakistan and Israel) but no missile capable of reaching earth orbit. An unstable leader in any of these 'club members' poses a threat to every country on the planet. 

I was born two weeks after the second A-bombs was dropped by the US on Japan - to celebrate my birth?  Thereafter throughout my early life there were regular nuclear fireworks in Arizona, the Pacific, Siberia and even Australia. Thus nuclear annihilation has worried my generation for most of our lives.  The fear escalated with the first man-made satellites in the 1960's, could they be bombs (FOBS)?  Could we trust the Russians and Americans to honour the Outer Space Treaty? 

But although this worried us a lot when I was a student in the 1960's, like Kubrick's Dr Strangelove, we've learned to 'stop worrying and love the bomb'. This is largely because of MAD - mutually assured destruction. 

So, strangely, I find I'm not too worried.  Like the South Koreans, who live with these threats every day, I trust that Kim Jong-un's primary motivation is his own survival.  So I'm inclined to believe that this is what he says it is, a reaction to the imminent (or allegedly imminent) threat of attack by the US.  It's a tool primarily intended to shore up his domestic position as 'beloved leader' and also to give North Korea and entry badge to the international nuclear club and to stop the US threatening him with war games off his coast and with Presidential 'tweets'.

As I mentioned in 2016 (above) Kim Jong-un has always been able to attack Seoul, more or less at will, and has been able to 'nuke' Tokyo for several years now.  Yet he hasn't because of MAD.  On the other hand, the sanctions and the insults continue - despite all his bomb and rocket tests and bellicose posturing - so he keeps 'upping the ante'.   It might be a good idea not to push him to the point of actually declaring his hand by demonstrating his nuclear capability on Hiroshima or Nagasaki (the traditional demonstration sites) or on Washington DC. And to regularly reaffirm the consequences were he to do this. 

Unfortunately it seems that to date President Trump has been the least predictable player in this particular game of poker.

Meanwhile in South Korea the corruption issues, alluded to above, came to a head last year and the country now has a new President, Moon Jae-in, elected earlier this year after the impeachment of his predecessor, Park Geun-hye.  Moon Jae-in is on the record, during his campaign at least, as wanting to renew reconciliation talks with the North and last month suspended plans to site US Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) interceptor missiles in the South.  According to USA Today: "...the Pentagon rushed to put {these} in place before the impeachment of his more hawkish predecessor."  In a clear attempt to make them a fait accompli, the system was declared partially operational a week before Moon Jae-in was elected.  Four batteries remain in place but are now in limbo until exposed to a future environmental impact analysis, followed by a parliamentary debate.

Might rapprochement with the North be renewed?  Will the 'chaebol' reassert their manipulative hegemony over the Korean body politic?  And where is Michael Richard Pompeo, the new Director of the US Central Intelligence Agency, in all this?

Only time will tell.

 

A further update
Jan 1 2018

From July onwards North Korea continued to test even larger or improved rockets.  Then on September 3 2017 they tested their sixth and by far largest nuclear weapon said to be a fusion bomb (H-Bomb) capable of being missile carried.  The explosion created a magnitude 6.3 tremor, making it the most powerful weapon Pyongyang has ever tested.  North Korean state media released pictures of Kim Jong Un inspecting what it claimed was a nuclear warhead small enough to be placed inside a missile.  In response to some western sceptics doubting this image Kim Jong Un then threatened to launch and detonate a similar weapon over the Pacific.

At a result of this test and the subsequent threats even China came on board with tougher sanctions that will turn down the oil tap to a trickle and very much restrict his country's access to foreign currency.  So in September, in response to that country's sixth nuclear test, the United Nations Security Council unanimously strengthened its oil sanctions regime against North Korea:

S/RES/2375 11 September 2017

'At the current annual level of 4 million barrels and limits exports of refined petroleum products to the country to 2 million barrels annually. They together slash North Korea's oil supplies from outside by 30 percent. It also bans overseas sales of North Korean textiles and further restricts the country's exports of its workers.'
 

 

Meanwhile President Trump became similarly bellicose; released a series of threatening 'tweets'; and got red in the face.

Notwithstanding these sanctions, in November North Korea launched it's Hwasong-15 missile, the most powerful yet.  It travelled for 50 minutes and reached an altitude of 4,500 km (2,800 miles), over ten times the height of the International Space Station.   According to Wikipedia its potential range appears to be more than 13,000 km (8,000 miles), able to reach Washington and the rest of the continental United States.

To avoid an attempt to 'take out' the missiles, preliminary to a land based attack, North Korea can hide them and launch from multiple 'green field' locations.  There is no fixed launch pad and based on satellite imagery, and Wikipedia reports that some experts believe that they may now be able to fuel missiles horizontally, shortening the delay between when a missile becomes visible to satellites to when it can be launched.

Let's hope that with a New Year commonsense prevails - all the while remembering that the last time the world successfully turned off the oil tap on an underestimated nation the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour. 

See my travel notes on Japan (Here...) for more on that.

 

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