The Korean missile war is heating up.
Ever since the United States and North Korea agreed to an armistice in 1953, the Korean Peninsula has enjoyed at best an uneasy peace. Now, the frozen conflict could enter a new phase as Pyongyang's tests increasingly powerful ballistic missiles—and, in response, Washington sends more missile-defense troops to the region.
On June 7, 2016, the Pentagon announced that it would send a US Army unit with Terminal High Altitude Air Defense—aka THAAD—missiles to South Korea. Washington and Seoul had been discussing the deployment for four months.
The two countries still have to decide where the troops will be based and other specifics about the mission. The Army already maintains a number of Patriot surface-to-air missile launchers at air bases in South Korea.
"Nuclear test[s] and multiple ballistic missile tests … highlight the grave threat that North Korea poses to the security and stability of … the entire Asia-Pacific region," the South Korean government declared in an official statement. "When the THAAD system is deployed to the Korean Peninsula, it will be focused solely on North Korean nuclear and missile threats."
Since January, the reclusive Communist regime has fired at least six prototype Musudan land-based ballistic missiles, two KN-11 submarine-launched types and an Unha-3 space launch rocket. All of these could, in theory, carry a nuclear warhead. Four separate United Nations Security Council Resolutions have condemned Pyongyang's missile tests and called on the country to halt any future launches.
On top of this, on January 6, 2016, North Korean authorities claimed to have successfully set off a powerful thermonuclear weapon—a hydrogen bomb—in their fourth atomic test since 2006. Separately on June 8, Washington hit North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un with additional new sanctions over his human rights abuses.
"They continue to prioritize missile and nuclear weapons programs over the well-being of their own people," US Navy captain Jeff Davis told reporters at the Pentagon in February, after announcing the Pentagon had sent its latest report on North Korea to Congress. "We … will take all necessary steps to defend ourselves and our allies and respond to North Korean provocations."
On June 9, North Korean missileers launched another KN-11. Pyongyang appeared to have conducted the test in protest of the THAAD decision and Washington's new sanctions.
"The US is going busy to put sanctions and 'pressure' on the DPRK, taken aback by the might of H-bombs, strategic submarines capable of launching missiles underwater and surface-to-surface medium long-range strategic ballistic rockets," state-run KCNA trumpeted.
KCNA also accused American officials of "slandering" Kim.
The US Army has been developing THAAD to counter just these sorts of threats. The missile system is supposed to be able to knock out incoming rockets.
But for more than a decade, defense contractor Lockheed Martin struggled to get the system to function as intended. After 10 tests, THAAD finally shot down a moving target.
In 2014, the Pentagon's main weapon tester J. Michael Gilmore slammed the new weapon for possessing only a "fundamental capability" to blow up enemy missiles. By then, the Army had already deployed THAAD troops—nicknamed the "Musudan Marauders"—to Guam for nearly a year.
However, in February 2016 Gilmore was broadly positive in his latest review. THAAD was moving along as planned, even though additional fixes were on the schedule into 2018.
Still, how effective the Musudans, KN-11s or THAADs might be in actual combat isn't clear. The Pentagon, American intelligence agencies and their South Korean counterparts seem to believe that North Korea is steadily improving its technology.
Foreign observers generally agree that one of North Korea's two Musudan tests on June 22 was at least a partial success. Fired from a 12-wheel truck, this missile has a range of between 2,500 and 4,000 miles—sufficient to reach anywhere in South Korea or Japan or even Guam.
At the same time, North Korean scientists and engineers are working on even larger missiles, known as the KN-08 and KN-14. In theory, these rockets could strike the continental United States.
"The KN-08 and KN-14 are far more capable than more conservative estimates," Jeffrey Lewis, a missile and nuclear weapons expert who blogs at Arms Control Wonk, wrote in April. "We can stop laughing any time now. The joke is on us."
On top of that, North Korea is trying to build up a naval missile force armed with the KN-11. While the July 2016 test apparently failed, Pyongyang's weaponeers no doubt gathered important data and learned valuable lessons from this second test from a locally-built Sinpo-classsubmarine.
"It appears that the increased pace of testing of North Korea's Musudan missile is not limited to that program," John Schilling, a rocket expert working for Aerospace Corp., a nonprofit closely associated with the US government, told South Korea's Yonhap news agency. "It's going to take more than one more test before they can be confident they got the process right, as opposed to just getting lucky."
Schilling added that he did not expect the North Korean Navy to have a working missile sub for "several more years."
In December 2015, North Korean forces tried and failed to fire an experimental missile from a submerged platform rather than from an actual sub. The next month, the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey released a detailed analysis of the test video, seen here:
But whether any of the missiles actually work isn't the only issue at play on the Korean Peninsula. The Pentagon's insistence that the THAADs won't be pointed at Chinese forces might not convince or reassure Beijing. Since at least 2014, American and Chinese forces have increasingly squared off against each other in contested regions of the Pacific, particularly the South Chinese Sea.
As a result, Seoul had been reticent about what reactions the deployment might provoke across the region. In 2013, South Korea had stated it would build its own missile defenses rather than invest in the troubled THAAD.
But hawkish Pres. Park Geun-hye's election in 2012, along with North Korea's successful Musudan test flight in June 2016, seems to have finally pushed American and South Korean authorities to agree to the US THAAD deployment. The subsequent KN-11 experiment likely reinforced that decision.
"We have to prepare for more powerful combat so that North Korea does not dare to shake us up or loosen our international cooperation system through any provocations," Park said at a luncheon with military commanders on June 23. "We will never close our eyes to the North's provocations that threaten our stability and peace."