Case Study on North Korea

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In Focus: North Korea’s Nuclear Threats
Updated April 16, 2013

What exactly is North Korea threatening to do? North Korea has been issuing near-daily threats against the United States and South Korea, and sometimes at United States forces in the Pacific. In one of the boldest warnings, the North said it could carry out pre-emptive nuclear strikes against the United States. Many analysts are extremely doubtful that the North could hit the United States mainland with a missile, whether nuclear-tipped or not. Some of its missiles could, however, hit South Korea or Japan and American forces there, analysts said. With each threat, there is always some mention that such attacks would be carried out if North Korea were attacked or otherwise provoked. Why is North Korea threatening the United States now? Because the United States led the successful push for sanctions at the United Nations to punish North Korea for its nuclear test in February, its third. The North also often ratchets up its political speech during joint United States-South Korea military exercises, which it portrays as a threat. One of those exercises is continuing. What might North Korea be trying to accomplish with its threats? In the past, United States administrations and South Korean governments managed to tamp down periodic heightened tensions with North Korea by offering concessions, including muchneeded aid, in return for the North's promising to end its nuclear weapons programs. Pyongyang has reneged on those promises after receiving aid. Many analysts believe that North Korea is again seeking aid and other concessions, while some suggest that it merely wants to be recognized as a nuclear state, like Pakistan. Still others suggest that the North genuinely fears an attack by the United States or South Korea and views the warnings as deterrence. Highlighting a perceived threat from abroad is also a favorite tool the North Korean government uses to ensure internal cohesion in an impoverished country that has experienced enormous privation, including devastating famine and continuing pervasive hunger. What kind of nuclear weapons and missile technology does North Korea possess? North Korea has conducted three nuclear tests since 2006. It is widely believed to be capable of at least making crude nuclear devices. North Korea has a sizable arsenal of short- and mediumrange missiles, and is developing longer-range missiles. A recent assessment by the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency has concluded with “moderate confidence” that the North now knows how to make a nuclear device small enough to be delivered by a ballistic missile.

How might the United States, South Korea, Japan and China respond to a missile test or an attack? If a missile attack went into the water, even if it passed over Japan, the two countries could ignore it. But if it headed for land, the United States would probably use its missile interception technology, including on Aegis-equipped ships off the Korean coast. If there were to be a more direct attack, like the torpedo that sank a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, three years ago, it is likely that both the United States and South Korea would respond. China would be unlikely to take action. What nuclear tests has North Korea conducted so far? North Korea conducted underground nuclear tests in 2006, in 2009 and in February. The most recent was the largest, though it was estimated to be less powerful than the first bomb the United States dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945. North Korea’s third nuclear test came two months after the country launched a rocket that put its first satellite into orbit. The United States and its allies said that the rocket launching was a cover for North Korea to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles that could reach North America. The United Nations Security Council condemned the launching as a violation of resolutions that barred the North from testing technology used for ballistic missiles,...
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