Trump administration weighing broad sanctions on North Korea

The Trump administration is considering sweeping sanctions aimed at cutting North Korea off from the global financial system as part of a broad review of measures to counter Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile threat, a senior U.S. official said.

The sanctions would be part of a multi-pronged approach of increased economic and diplomatic pressure – especially on Chinese banks and firms that do the most business with North Korea – plus beefed-up defenses by the United States and its South Korean and Japanese allies, according to the administration official familiar with the deliberations.

While the long-standing option of pre-emptive military strikes against North Korea is not off the table – as reflected by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s warning to Pyongyang during his Asia tour last week – the new administration is giving priority for now to less-risky options.

The policy recommendations being assembled are expected to reach the president’s desk within weeks, possibly before a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping in early April, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. North Korea is expected to top the agenda at that meeting.

The objective of the U.S. move being considered would be to tighten the screws in the same way that the widening of sanctions – to encompass foreign firms dealing with Iran – was used to pressure Tehran to open negotiations with the West on its suspected nuclear weapons program. That effort ultimately led to a 2015 deal to restrict Iran’s nuclear program in return for sanctions relief.

 [Read full Reuters article]

Three US administrations have failed to deter North Korea’s nuclear ambitions

Three US administrations spanning 24 years — Clinton, Bush 43 and Obama — have failed to deter North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

All of North Korea’s programs are leading to one thing: the ability to hit Los Angeles or another large U.S. city with a nuclear first strike. North Korea has enough highly enriched uranium or plutonium for about 10 warheads. Its miniaturization and weaponization technology is well-advanced. Its missile tests have moved from short range to intermediate range, and are now on the brink of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Once a warhead is mounted on an ICBM, Los Angeles is in imminent danger.

North Korea is about three–four years away from this goal.

The Trump administration is hoping that war in not necessary and that it can steer the North Koreans toward acceptable behavior through the use of financial sanctions. The U.S. pursued this policy with some success during both the Clinton and Bush 43 administrations, but both presidents backed off from sanctions in exchange for vague promises from North Korea that were never honored in full. The Obama administration did almost nothing to deter North Korea and essentially ignored the issue for eight years in order to appease China. Now the Trump administration is playing the sanctions card again.

North Korean banks have been banned from the global payments system called SWIFT. This is a powerful move, but North Korea can work around it. It can use Russian and Chinese banks to make international payments on its behalf without disclosing the name of the real beneficiary to SWIFT.

The solution to this is for the U.S. to impose sanctions on Chinese and Russian banks doing business in the U.S. that facilitate North Korean payments. That’s an effective form of sanction, but it risks escalating tensions with Russia and China. Trump may move in that direction anyway.

[Jim Rickards]

North Korea contributes to Doomsday Clock being reset to 2½ minutes to midnight

The Doomsday Clock was created in a publication called the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1947 and was intended as a stark graphical representation of how close the planet Earth is to nuclear annihilation. The minute hand shows the relative time remaining for life on Earth. This is measured in “minutes to midnight.” The minute hand is moved once per year.

At the start of the Cold War (1947), the clock was set at seven minutes to midnight. In 1991, just after the end of the Cold War, the clock showed 17 minutes to midnight.

This year the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists issued a shocking announcement that The Doomsday Clock was moved forward to 2½ minutes to midnight, the closest to disaster the clock has been since 1953. (At that time, it was set at two minutes to midnight due to a U.S. decision to pursue the hydrogen bomb.)

[As part of the reason] for moving the Doomsday Clock forward to “two and a half minutes to midnight,” The Bulletin cited the North Korean situation.

North Korea has made great strides in short-range and intermediate-range missiles, and is working toward an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), that could reach Los Angeles and much of the rest of the United States from their territory. North Korea also has a store of plutonium and highly-enriched uranium (HEU) that can be converted into nuclear weapons. It has made progress in the miniaturization and ruggedization of those weapons so they can be converted to warheads and placed on the missiles. The only remaining element of the nightmare scenario is intent.

What would war between the US and North Korea mean?

The US has nearly 80,000 military personnel in South Korea and Japan, as well as more war-fighting units in Guam. The US 7th Fleet patrols the region, armed with tactical nuclear weapons. US nukes are also based in South Korea and Guam. Additionally, South Korea has a formidable, 600,000-man army equipped with state of the art weapons.

North Korea’s one million-man armed force is large, but obsolescent. Its great strength in heavy artillery partly compensates for its totally obsolete, 1960’s vintage air force. Key combat elements of the DPRK army are dug deep into the rocky hills just north of the DMZ, with thousands of heavy North Korean guns facing south. In the event of war, the North claims it will destroy South Korea’s capitol, Seoul, that is only 30km away and has 20 million residents.

US estimates of war in Korea, made a decade ago, suggest America would incur 250,000 casualties in a war that would cost one million Korean deaths. That’s why the US has shied away from direct attack on North Korea.

The US would certainly be tempted to use tactical nuclear weapons against North Korean troops and guns deeply dug into the mountainous terrain. Without them, air power, America’s usual trump card, would lose much of its destructive potential.

US war plans call for amphibious landings along North Korea’s long, vulnerable coastline. This threat forces the North to deploy large numbers of regular army and militia troops on both coasts. North Korea’s air force and little navy would be vaporized on the first day of hostilities. But it is likely that the DPRK would be able to fire a score or more of medium-ranged missiles at Japan.

If the war goes nuclear, Japan looks almost certain to suffer nuclear attack, along with Guam. Tokyo and Osaka are prime targets.

North Korean forces might be able to push south to Seoul, but likely no further in the face of fierce attacks by US and South Korean air power operating from bases further south. The North’s powerful commando force of some 100,000 troops would attack key South Korean targets, including its vital air bases shared with the US. Such raids would be highly disruptive but not decisive unless the DPRK used chemical and/or biological weapons to shut down South Korea’s air bases and its ports at Busan and Inchon.

The US and South Korea could certainly win such a war but it would be very bloody and expensive. There would be the threat of Chinese military intervention if it appeared the US was about to occupy North Korea. Russia is also right next door.

[Excerpts of article by Eric Margolis]

US Ambassador says North Korea is the “number one threat” to the US

North Korea is not frightened by U.S. warnings that pre-emptive military action is on the table, its foreign ministry said Tuesday, describing its expanding nuclear program as a “treasured sword of justice.” The regime “has the will and capability to fully respond to any war the U.S. would like to ignite,” it added. “The U.S. should face up to the situation … with its eyes wide open.”

It comes after leader Kim Jong Un announced the ground test of a “high-thrust” rocket engine on Saturday. “The world will soon witness what eventful significance the … recent ground jet test of Korean-style high-thrust engine will carry,” KCNA said Tuesday. “The nuclear force of [North Korea] is the treasured sword of justice and the most reliable war deterrence.”

Meanwhile the North Korean government website Uriminzokkiri released a propaganda video that appears to show a North Korea military strike on a US aircraft carrier and a US bomber.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said North Korea was the “number one threat” to the U.S. and that military action was an option if there was no co-operation. Her comments were echoed by former defense secretary William Cohen, who told CNBC that North Korea’s military escalation was “the most dangerous issue we have facing us today.”

The Trump administration is considering sweeping sanctions aimed at cutting North Korea off from the global financial system as part of a broad review of measures to counter Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile threat, a senior U.S. official had said on Monday. The sanctions would be part of a multi-pronged approach of increased economic and diplomatic pressure – especially on Chinese banks and firms that do the most business with North Korea – plus beefed-up defenses by the United States and its South Korean and Japanese allies, according to the administration official familiar with the deliberations.

While the long-standing option of pre-emptive military strikes against North Korea is not off the table – as reflected by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s warning to Pyongyang during his Asia tour last week – the new administration is giving priority for now to less-risky options.

The objective of the U.S. move being considered would be to tighten the screws in the same way that the widening of sanctions – to encompass foreign firms dealing with Iran – was used to pressure Tehran to open negotiations with the West on its suspected nuclear weapons program.

[NBC / Huffington Post / CNN]

US says diplomacy with North Korea has failed while Pyongyang warns of war

Diplomacy has failed and it’s time to “take a different approach” to North Korea, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in Tokyo, as the North Korean Embassy in China warned that American military threats were bringing the region to the brink of nuclear war.

Tillerson’s comment–that 20 years of diplomacy have been unable to persuade the regime in Pyongyang to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons–alluded to a 1994 deal between the United States and North Korea. Under it, Pyongyang would have received aid and two proliferation-resistant nuclear power plants in return for freezing and eventually dismantling its nuclear weapons program. That deal collapsed in 2002, and years of stop-start efforts to reach a new deal have amounted to little, with North Korea actively pursuing nuclear weapons and the missiles with which to deliver them.

In the meantime, the United States gave North Korea a total of $1.35 billion in assistance “as an encouragement to take a different pathway,” Tillerson said, but the largesse was met with continued weapons development.

He declined to go into specifics about what a different approach might entail. The Trump administration is now conducting a review of North Korea policy, and some in Washington are advocating “kinetic options”–a euphemism for military action.

There are sharply different views in the region about how to achieve that goal, with China in particular unwilling to do anything that might destabilize its ally and neighbor.

[Washington Post]

Navy Seals and other Special-Ops part of American-Korean military drills

The U.S. Navy’s Special Warfare Development Group, better known as the SEAL Team 6, will arrive in South Korea for joint military drills and take part in an exercise simulating a precision North Korean incurion and “the removal of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un”, according to the South Korean Ministry of National Defense.

The U.S. Navy SEAL Team Six will join the annual Foal Eagle and Key Resolve exercises between the two allies for the first time, along with the Army’s Rangers, Delta Force and Green Berets.

The counterterrorism unit is best known for its removal of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in May 2011, known as Operation Neptune Spear. It will be the team’s first time participating in the annual Foal Eagle and Key Resolve exercises, which will run through late April.

The Japan Times reported that the SEAL Team 6 unit boarded the USS Carl Vinson, a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, last Friday and are currently training in South Korean waters.

As Korea JoongAng Daily adds, also set to touch down in South Korea is Delta Force, a special mission unit of the U.S. Army whose main tasks include hostage rescue and counterterrorism, said the Defense Ministry. Together with SEAL Team 6, they will practice removing Kim Jong-un and destruction of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction.

“It will send a very strong message to North Korea, which is constantly carrying out military provocations,” a ministry official said.

F-35 stealth fighters will also fly from U.S. Navy bases in Japan this month and carry out strike simulations on key North Korean facilities.

The beefing up of U.S. special operation forces in the drills comes after North Korean leader Kim said in a New Year’s speech that the country was in the “final stage” of test-firing an intercontinental ballistic missile, the first of its kind, and pushed through two separate missile tests earlier this year, the latest on March 6. North Korea claimed through its state-run media that the most recent drill was aimed at striking “the bases of the U.S. imperialist aggressor forces in Japan.”

Washington and Seoul stress that the annual military drills are purely defensive, although Pyongyang sees them as a rehearsal for an invasion.

Military showdown off North Korean shores

The US, Japan and South Korea sent a pointed message to North Korea on Tuesday, dispatching high-tech missile defense ships to the same area where Pyongyang fired four missiles just eight days ago.

Aegis warships from the US, South Korea and Japan began exercises Tuesday to improve their capability to shoot down enemy ballistic missiles, the US Navy said in a statement.

China’s Foreign Ministry reacted sternly Tuesday afternoon, calling on all sides to end “a vicious cycle that could spiral out of control. … North Korea has violated UN Security Council resolutions banning its ballistic missile launches; on the other hand, South Korea, the US — and now Japan — insist on conducting super-large-scale military drills,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said.

In response, Pyongyang accused the US of preparing a “preemptive strike”, according to North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency, KCNA. “If they infringe on our sovereignty and dignity even a bit, our army will launch merciless ultra-precision strikes from ground, air, sea and underwater,” read the statement.

The US has also declared it will permanently station missile-capable drones in South Korea. The US military in South Korea took the unusual step of publicly announcing the deployment of a company of Grey Eagle drones, the army’s enhanced version of the Predator drone, designed to carry Hellfire missiles. Together with the deployment of THAAD anti-ballistic missile defenses in South Korea, they represent a significant build-up of US military muscle in response to an accelerated program of missile and nuclear testing by the North Korean regime.

[CNN / The Guardian]

Time for Trump to talk with North Korea?

North Korea’s recent missile tests will put new pressure on the Trump administration to choose a strategy for dealing with this pesky proliferator.

The standard playbook is well known to those who have worked on the problem of North Korea: pressure China to pressure North Korea, toughen sanctions, reassure allies and push them to build missile defenses.  Mr. Trump can follow this well-worn path, but he will likely get the same result: failure.

Instead, Mr. Trump, simply by virtue of being the new president, has another option. He can talk to the North Koreans and negotiate. North Korean officials have said that they are willing to turn the page and start fresh with President Trump. If he is open, they would be open. Or so they say.

Kim Jong Un previously floated the idea that he would freeze some of its weapons tests, if the U.S. called off its joint military exercises with South Korea. More recently, Pyongyang suggested that it would normalize relations, if the U.S. withdrew its troops from the South. Both offers are complete and utter non-starters.

But here’s the thing: they are offers. Negotiations start with offers, and rarely does the first offer represent the final deal.

[From Fox News Opinion by Dr. Jim Walsh, Senior Research Associate at MIT’s Security Studies Program]

China warns Trump he is facing a ‘head-on collision’ with North Korea

The United States and North Korea are racing towards a catastrophic “head-on collision”, China’s foreign minister has warned, amid Chinese fury at America’s deployment of a controversial anti-missile system. Speaking in Beijing on Wednesday, Wang Yi said a “looming crisis” was brewing on the Korean peninsular.

Wang scolded Pyongyang for ignoring international opposition to its nuclear and missile programs but also accused the US of stoking regional tensions by holding “military exercises of enormous scale” with South Korea.

“The two sides are like two accelerating trains coming towards each other with neither side willing to give way. The question is: are the two sides really ready for a head-on collision?” Wang told reporters, painting China as a signalman attempting avert the disaster.

Wang was speaking after the US angered Beijing by announcing it had begun delivering its controversial Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system to South Korea on Monday night.

The deployment came one day after North Korea launched four ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan in what its state media called a bid to “mercilessly retaliate against the warmongers” in Washington and Seoul. US president Donald Trump, who has accused China of not doing enough to rein in North Korea, responded by warning that Pyongyang’s threat had entered a “new phase”. China, however, views the THAAD project as part of a broader US attempt to stifle its rise.

[The Guardian]