BY JULIAN RYALL
TOKYO — A Singapore-based defense expert has warned that North Korea is likely to carry out some type of nuclear test close to the U.S. presidential election in November, with areas close to Guam identified as possible test sites.
In an interview with The Korea Herald, Graham Ong-Webb, an adjunct fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said North Korea needs to conduct more tests of its nuclear technology to demonstrate that it is genuinely a threat to the continental United States and to earn recognition as a nuclear power.
Given the poor state of U.S.-North Korea relations and the refusal of President Donald Trump to accede to demands that the international community ease crippling sanctions on the North, Pyongyang is likely to see the presidential election as an opportune time to carry out the test and show its military prowess.
“My assessment, with high level of confidence, is that the Kim Jong-un regime will resume testing strategic nuclear weapons,” Ong-Webb told the paper. “Under the current Trump presidency, I think there is zero prospect for a summit. North Korea has declared that the US has failed to achieve expected compromises with them.”
Pyongyang has previously carried out a number of long-range ballistic missile tests and has claimed that it now has the capability of hitting targets in the mainland U.S. It has not, however, demonstrated that it has mastered the technology that would enable a missile carrying a nuclear warhead to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere without burning up or detonating, which would be required to hit a target on the other side of the planet.
“North Korea does not have the computer technology to do a virtual testing [of reentry], so they will have to do a physical test,” Ong-Webb said.
Alternatively, North Korea could carry out a seventh nuclear test. Pyongyang demolished its Punggye-ri nuclear proving grounds in May 2018, when the North and the U.S. appeared to be on the brink of a breakthrough on the question of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program. Relations have cooled significantly since then and there has been no progress since an abortive summit in Vietnam in February 2019.
“There are about three to four potential sites including around Guam that the U.S. postulates,” Ong-Webb said. “This would be a more symbolic test to sort of warm up the situation, and after test No. 7, they could reassess whether to do the re-entry test or not.”
He played down suggestions, however, that Kim’s regime will carry out more medium-range missile tests in the run-up to the election, for fear of provoking retaliation from the US.
“The U.S. domestic society is completely consumed by the pandemic now,” he sad. “Medium-range missiles are not meaningful for Kim Jong-un. My argument is that countries in Northeast Asia — South Korea and Japan — are already socialized to this kind of short- or medium-range missile threats.
“South Korean and U.S. military bases are already operating in theater under constant nuclear threat from the Russians and the Chinese. North Korea doesn’t really change the weightage of risk,” he said.
“The real threat that made Trump move is because North Korea’s weapons development holds U.S. cities hostage,” he added. “If Pyongyang [conducts nuclear or re-entry] tests, it will be a very destabilizing moment in world politics.”
Pyongyang is presently trying to determine the most appropriate time for a test, he said.
“If Joe Biden continues to be in the lead and wins the U.S. presidential race, a post-November nuclear test will be more likely,” he suggested. “I have interacted with officials of the Kim Jong-un regime and they are very smart, talented people. They must be closely watching whether the U.S. has an appetite for a preemptive strike, especially as the U.S. is currently in its worst situation with the pandemic and could seek to enjoy the absence of reprisal.”
Kim appears to be committed to retaining his nuclear weapons, despite hopes just two years ago that he could be persuaded to exchange them for peace on the Korean Peninsula, vast amounts of economic assistance and the security of his regime.
At a ceremony on Monday to mark the 67th anniversary of the end of the three-year Korean War in 1953, he declared that North Korea’s nuclear deterrence will permanently guarantee the nation’s security.
North Korea threatened to carry out a missile attack against Guam in summer 2017, warning that its ballistic missiles could travel 3,500 km to deliver “enveloping fire” around the islands. And while Washington’s primary concern is the growing threat posed by China’s long-range missile capability, North Korea may have played a part in thinking concerning plans to construct an Aegis Ashore installation on Guam.
Admiral Phillip Scott Davidson, head of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said funding needs to be approved for the construction of an Aegis Ashore ballistic missile base on the island by 2021, while the system needs to be operational within five years if the U.S. is to stay ahead of the technological advances that its rivals in the region are making.
“I will say that my number one priority and the most important action that we can take to rapidly and fully implement the National Defense Strategy as a first step is a 360-degree persistent and integrated air-defense capability in Guam,” Davidson said in an interview with National Defense magazine.
Describing Aegis Ashore as the “Homeland Defense System Guam,” Davidson said it would complement the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system that is presently deployed on Guam to protect Andersen Air Force Base and Naval Base Guam, centered on Apra Harbor.
Lance Gatling, a Tokyo-based aerospace and weapons analyst, says the geographical location of Guam makes it an important base of operations for the U.S. military in the western Pacific and, consequently, a critical target for Washington’s enemies should a conflict erupt in the region.
“Guam has long been a key staging point for the U.S., in both naval and air operations, and it was from there that long-range bombers operated against targets during the Vietnam War,” he said.
“And it is going to become even more important as the U.S. Marines move more of their personnel from Okinawa to Guam,” he added.
Gatling also believes that Aegis Ashore in the western Pacific will be used to complement existing anti-missile defense installations, in Alaska and California, designed to intercept long-range ballistic missiles aimed at the continental United States.
“From the standpoint of missile defense, Guam is in a very decent position to have a shot at any missiles on a trajectory for the U.S.,” he said.
Admiral Davidson is requesting $5.2 billion over a five-year period from 2021 to deploy Aegis Ashore in Guam. Analysts say it is likely that his request will be approved as the U.S. Congress has embraced the idea of a Pacific Deterrence Initiative designed to counter Beijing’s increasingly expansionist attitude in the region. mbj