Tensions are rising on the Korean Peninsula. The U.S. military confirmed Tuesday it has begun assembling its controversial anti-missile defense system after North Korea test-fired four ballistic missiles on Monday. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un issued a stark warning to the U.S. and South Korea, promising to unleash a “nuclear-tipped missile” to “demolish” any country that attacks the secretive kingdom.
The latest flare-up in tension began with the start of annual U.S.-South Korean military exercises — known as Foal Eagle — last week. As usual, this angered Pyongyang and triggered the test firing of four ballistic missiles Monday. This was followed by an announcement that the U.S. and South Korea had begun assembling its anti-missile defense system. Then, through a statement issued by the Korean Central News Agency, Kim Jong Un said the latest missile tests were practising to strike U.S. military bases in Japan, and the dictator warned that any attack on North Korea would have dire consequences:
“If the United States or South Korea fires even a single flame inside North Korean territory, we will demolish the origin of the invasion and provocation with a nuclear tipped missile,” the KCNA statement said.
Here’s what you need to know:
- The missiles flew about 1000 kilometers (620 miles), with all four landing in the sea — three of them within Japan’s exclusive economic zone. “They are practicing launching a nuclear-armed missile and hitting targets in Japan as if this was a real war,” Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute told the Washington Post.
- This prompted Hwang Kyo Ahn, South Korea’s acting president, to urge the U.S. to deploy its controversial missile defense system known as THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense), as soon as possible. On Tuesday, the U.S. military confirmed it had “deployed the first elements” of the system, with the first parts arriving at the Osan air base south of Seoul. The U.S. already has other THAAD systems active in Hawaii and Guam to protect against threats from North Korea.
- In a statement, Adm. Harry Harris, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, said: “Continued provocative actions by North Korea, to include yesterday’s launch of multiple missiles, only confirm the prudence of our alliance decision last year to deploy THAAD to South Korea.”
- THAAD is comprised of three parts — radar, command-and-control and a missile launcher. Radar detects the missile at launch when it’s most visible, relays this information to the command-and-control center, which in turn orders the missile launcher to intercept the threat. The system is designed to destroy an incoming missile in the terminal phase of flight. However, if North Korea is now capable of firing four missiles simultaneously — as it did Monday — this could overwhelm the system, according to analysts.
- While defense officials stress that THAAD “is strictly a defensive system,” it has caused controversy. In South Korea itself, many people have protested at the establishment of the system, claiming it will make areas around U.S. military bases targets for attack. Last year, residents of the south-eastern Seongju region, earmarked for the THAAD base, had their heads shaved in protest.
- The loudest opposition to the new system comes from China, which believes the radar element could be used to spy on its own military operations. Foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Tuesday that China is “firmly opposed” to the deployment of the system, adding: “China will resolutely take necessary measures to defend our own security interests. All consequences entailed from this will be borne by the U.S. and the Republic of Korea.”
U.S. President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke on the phone about North Korea’s missile launches on Monday. Abe warned the threat from North Korea “had entered a new phase.” Following a request from the U.S. and Japan, the United Nations Security Council will meet on Wednesday for an emergency meeting to discuss the incident.