March 07, 2017 11:10
North Korea's launch of several ballistic missiles on Monday was not a complete surprise since the North has typically resorted to provocations in response to joint South Korea-U.S. military drills in March and April every year.
What worries observers is that four of them seem to have had a range of over 1,000 km.
Three missiles that landed in Japan's exclusive economic zone are believed to have been Scud ER models with a maximum range of 1,000 km or Rodong missiles capable of hitting targets 1,300 km away. They may even have been upgraded ballistic missiles.
All have been developed to target either the Japanese mainland or U.S. military installations in Japan, but if they are fired at a high angle they can hit any target in South Korea and their supersonic speed (Mach four to five) of descent make them impervious to existing Patriot missile interceptors.
The U.S.' Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense battery to be stationed here this year is the only defense system capable of thwarting them, according to U.S. officials.
But military experts warn that even the THAAD battery may not be effective if the North fires multiple rounds at once.
Four of the missiles North Korea launched on Monday had similar ranges, but were fired at varying angles in a fan shape ranging from 75 to 93 degrees. One military source said, "North Korean missiles with ranges of 1,000 to 1,300 km can hit major U.S. military installations in Japan, such as Yokosuka Naval Base, where massive numbers of American troops will converge in the event of a war on the Korean Peninsula."
The launches were conducted from the North's long-range missile base in Tongchang-ri near the Chinese border. Park Byung-kwang at the Institute for National Security Strategy said, "Although they were not long-range missiles, they were fired in Tongchang-ri, which means the North wanted to send the U.S. a message."
"It was a warning to the Trump administration, which is considering all options against North Korea, that the North should not be messed with and that dialogue is a safer option."
There may be a number of reasons why North Korea upped the stakes. For one thing, this year's maneuvers by the U.S. and South Korea are the biggest show of force they have yet put on.
Diplomatic sources said North Korea's nervous response appears to have been affected by the Trump administration's hawkish stance.
According to the New York Times on Saturday, one of the options the Trump administration is considering is the re-deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea, additional THAAD batteries and preemptive strikes.
After the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, in Malaysia, there are also growing calls among U.S. politicians to put the North back on Washington's list of terrorism sponsoring states.
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