The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) conducted a series of missile and nuclear tests in 2017 that demonstrated the country’s ability to launch ballistic missiles beyond its immediate region and suggested that North Korea’s nuclear weapons capability was developing at a faster rate than had been assessed by the U.S. intelligence community. This, coupled with a regular joint U.S.–South Korea military exercise undertaken in August as well as U.S. retaliatory threats, raised international tensions in the region and beyond. In early August 2017, The Washington Post reported an assessment, made by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency in July 2017, which said that North Korea had successfully developed nuclear warheads for missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland (a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can fit inside its missiles).
Time Line of recent tension between US and North Korea
- North Korea′s test-firing of a medium-range ballistic missile- Following North Korea′s test-firing of a medium-range ballistic missile from its eastern port of Sinpo into the Sea of Japan on 5 April, which came a month after four ballistic missiles were fired towards the Sea of Japan, tensions increased as U.S. president Donald Trump had said the U.S. was prepared to act alone to deal with the nuclear threat from North Korea.
- S. Navy announced of sending its navy- On 9 April, the U.S. Navy announced it was sending a navy strike group headed by the USS Carl Vinson supercarrier to the West Pacific (″to sail north and report on station in the Western Pacific Ocean after departing Singapore April 8″), but due to apparent miscommunication inside the U.S. administration, the naval move was presented as one towards the Korean peninsula. This information was backtracked by the U.S. government a few days later.
- North Korea’s allegation on the US- On 17 April, North Korea’s deputy United Nations ambassador accused the United States of “turning the Korean peninsula into “the world’s biggest hotspot” and the North Korean government stated “its readiness to declare war on the United States if North Korean forces were to be attacked.” In reality on April 18, the Carl Vinson and its escorts were 3,500 miles from Korea engaged in scheduled joint Royal Australian Navy exercises in the Indian Ocean.
- Tactical training session between the US and Japan- On April 24 the Japanese destroyers Ashigara and Samidare participated with the USS Carl Vinson in tactical training drills near the Philippines; North Korea threatened to sink her with a single strike. The Carl Vinson aircraft carrier had been in the South China Sea in 2015 and again in February 2017 on routine patrols. In late April 2017, Trump stated that “[t]here is a chance that we [the United States] could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea”.
- THAAD in South Korea– Ostensibly to counter North Korea′s missile threat, United States Forces Korea (USFK) had been planning deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in South Korea, which is designed to detect and destroy intermediate- and medium-range ballistic missiles (not intercontinental ballistic missile). The deployment had faced strong oppositions from China, Russia, and North Korea. In late April 2017, it was reported that while THAAD had originally been scheduled to become operational by the end of 2017, this could occur sooner. According to U.S. Forces Korea′s announcement, THAAD stationed in South Korea had reached initial operating capability (IOC) on 1 May 2017.
- North Korea marked the 85th anniversary of the Korean People’s Army– On 24 April, North Korea marked the 85th anniversary of the Korean People’s Army by what was said to be ″its largest ever military drill″, conducted in Wonsan. The following day, it was reported that the United States and South Korea had begun installing key elements of the THAAD missile defense in South Korea′s Seongju County.
- North Korea conducted the first publicly announced flight test of its ICBM Hwasong-14— On 4 July North Korea conducted the first publicly announced flight test of its ICBM Hwasong-14, timed to coincide with the U.S. Independence Day celebrations. This flight had a claimed range of 933 kilometres (580 mi) eastwards into the Sea of Japan (East Sea of Korea) and reached an altitude of 2,802 kilometres (9,193,000 ft) during a 39-minute flight. The U.S. government experts classified the missile launch as a big step in Pyongyang’s quest to acquire a nuclear-tipped weapon capable of hitting the U.S. North Korea declared it was now “a full-fledged nuclear power that has been possessed of the most powerful inter-continental ballistic rocket capable of hitting any part of the world”.
- Death of an American student in June 2017– The situation was aggravated further by the death of an American student in June 2017 who had been captivated in North Korea. American university student Otto Warmbier was freed from North Korea in June 2017, while in a coma after nearly 18 months of captivity. Warmbier died without regaining consciousness on June 19, 2017, six days after his return to the United States. Some U.S. officials blamed North Korea for his death. In July 2017, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson authorized a “Geographical Travel Restriction” which banned Americans from entering North Korea.
- Donald Trump warned that North Korean nuclear threats would “be met with fire, fury— On August 8, 2017, President Donald Trump warned that North Korean nuclear threats would “be met with fire, fury and frankly power, the likes of which the world has never seen before”, after the mass media reported that a US intelligence assessment had found that the country had successfully produced a miniaturised nuclear warhead capable of fitting inside its missiles. President Trump also remarked of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un: ″He has been very threatening beyond a normal state.” Within hours, North Korea responded by announcing that it was considering attacking U.S. military bases in the US territory of Guam. On August 10, 2017, North Korean Lt. Gen. Kim Rak-gyom responded to Trump’s speech of “fire and fury”, saying his words were “nonsense” and asserting that “reasonable dialogue” wasn’t possible with Trump as president of the US.
- Dwindling communication and chances of military action hover— U.S. officials stated that Joseph Y. Yun, the US envoy for North Korea policy, and Pak Song-il, a senior North Korean diplomat at the country’s UN mission, were making regular contact during this dispute, through a conduit of communication they called the New York channel. On 11 August, Donald Trump wrote on Twitter that ″military solutions″ were “fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely”. On August 15, the North Korean leader said he was delaying a decision on firing missiles towards the US Pacific territory of Guam while he waits to see what Trump does next. U.S. officials stated that Joseph Y. Yun, the US envoy for North Korea policy, and Pak Song-il, a senior North Korean diplomat at the country’s UN mission, were making regular contact during this dispute, through a conduit of communication they called the New York channel.
- S and South Korea conducted the 2017 Ulchi-Freedom Guardian exercise– On 21—31 August, the U.S and South Korea conducted the 2017 Ulchi-Freedom Guardian exercise that was billed by U.S. Forces Korea as slightly smaller than the previous year’s, with 17,500 U.S. troops participating; an editorial carried by North Korea’s official Rodong Sinmun newspaper condemned the drills as ″the most explicit expression of hostility against us″.
- North Korea fired three missiles from Kangwon Province— North Korea’s unabated missiles and nuclear tests- On 11 August, Donald Trump wrote on Twitter that ″military solutions″ were “fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely”.On August 25, North Korea fired three missiles from Kangwon Province in the southeastern part of the country. According to Cmdr. Dave Benham of US Pacific Command, one of the missiles exploded on launch while the other two suffered critical failures in flight, splashing down in the Sea of Japan after flying a distance of 250 kilometers.
- Missile test over Japan on 29 August— On 29 August, just before 6:00 AM JST, North Korea launched a missile which flew over Hokkaido, Japan. The missile reached an altitude of 550 km and flew a total distance of around 2,700 km before crashing into the Pacific. The missile was not shot down by the Japanese military. This was the third time, with two prior events in 1998 and 2009, that a North Korean missile had passed over Japanese territory. However, in both of those prior cases, North Korea had claimed that they were launching satellites.
- US says they are never out of diplomatic solutions — On 30 August, President Trump issued a statement via Twitter saying “The U.S. has been talking to North Korea and paying them extortion money, for 25 years. Talking is not the answer!”. However, when asked by reporters at a meeting with South Korean Defence Minister Song Young-Moo whether diplomacy was off the table, US Secretary of Defence James Mattis stated that “We’re never out of diplomatic solutions” and “We always look for more. We’re never complacent”. On 31 August, the US flew a squadron of bombers, including two nuclear-capable B-1B’s and four F-35’s, and conducted bombing drills in what US Pacific Command described as a “direct response to North Korea’s intermediate range ballistic missile launch”, referring to North Korea’s IRBM launch on August 29.
- North Korea Tests Hydrogen Bomb—On 3 September, the United States Geological Surveyreported that it had detected a magnitude3 earthquake in North Korea near the Punggye-ri test site. Given the shallow depth of the quake and its proximity to North Korea’s primary nuclear weapons testing facility, experts concluded that the country had conducted a sixth nuclear weapon test since the country first exploded a nuclear device in 2006. North Korea claimed that they had tested a hydrogen bomb capable of being mounted on an ICBM. The independent seismic monitoring agency NORSAR estimated that the blast had a yield of around 120 kilotons. An official KCNA statement of 3 September, also claimed North Korea’s ability to conduct a “super-powerful EMP attack.”
North Korea and China
It is blamed that China is playing its strategic and geopolitical game behind the veil by using North Korea to counter US forays in East Asia. But close to recent UN sanctions, Chinese Bank branches near the North Korean border were reportedly instructed not to open any new accounts for that country’s citizens and businesses. According to reports this is not part of any United Nations sanctions regime. It is an attempt to head off further US measures targeting Chinese banks which are accused of doing sanctions-busting business with North Korea. Quite apart from the UN, the US Treasury has its own sanctions regime blacklisting companies and people who are said to have assisted Pyongyang in developing nuclear weapons. Once a person or a company is placed on the American list of prohibited entities, US (and even foreign) companies can face strict penalties within the US for having dealings with them. China’s financial institutions have been accused of laundering funds used to facilitate North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile and nuclear warhead development. The government in Pyongyang is said to use front companies to move money around the world via Chinese banks. For this reason, officials in Washington DC have been threatening to place major Chinese banks on the black list: international sanctions against these enormous institutions could cause global economic shockwaves. In recent months, the relatively small Bank of Dandong was blacklisted.
China cannot take North Korea for sure
In his New Year’s Day speech on 2 January 2017, Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, said that the country was in the “last stage” of preparations to test-fire an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). On 3 May, North Korea issued a rare and harshly worded criticism of its chief ally, China, stating that “One must clearly understand that the D.P.R.K.’s line of access to nukes for the existence and development of the country can neither be changed nor shaken[…] And that the D.P.R.K. will never beg for the maintenance of friendship with China, risking its nuclear program which is as precious as its own life, no matter how valuable the friendship is… China should no longer try to test the limits of the D.P.R.K.’s patience[…] China had better ponder over the grave consequences to be entailed by its reckless act of chopping down the pillar of the D.P.R.K.-China relations.” The harsh commentary also accused the Chinese media (which is tightly controlled by the government) of dancing to the tune of the U.S.
Hydrogen Bomb and after
The day (September 3, 2013) North Korea claimed testing an Hydrogen bomb,U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis speaking on behalf of the White House, warned there would be “a massive military response” to any threat from North Korea against the United States, including Guam, or its allies.
On the same day, the UN Security Council convened to discuss further measures against North Korea; the leaked draft the relevant UNSC resolution prepared by the U.S. was said to call for an oil embargo on North Korea, ban on the country’s exports of textiles, on the hiring of North Korean workers abroad as well as personal sanctions against Kim Jong-un. Despite resistance from China and Russia, the United States on 8 September formally requested a vote of the United Nations Security Council on the U.S. resolution. UNSC 2375 passed on 11 September as a significantly watered-down version of the United States’ request.
On 6 September, Donald Trump, after a telephone conversation with China′s Xi Jinping, said that the United States would not tolerate North Korea′s provocations, although military action was not his “first choice”. On 14 September, North Korea issued a threat to “sink” Japan, and turn the US to “ashes and darkness”. The statement drew strong condemnation from Yoshihide Suga, who described the speech as “extremely provocative and egregious”. The next day, an IRBM was fired from near Pyongyang and flew over Hokkaido, Japan before splashing down in the western Pacific about two thousand kilometers off Cape Erimo at about 7:16 AM local time.
Sanctions on North Korea
The UN Security Council had passed a number of resolutions since North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006. In late February 2017, following NK′s 12 February test of the Pukguksong-2 medium-range ballistic missile, China, who is by far NK′s largest trading partner (more than 90% of North Korea’s international trade) and who regards its trade with NK and the putative missile threat to the U.S. as separate issues, said it would comply with UN Resolution 2321 and halt all coal imports (North Korea’s main export) from North Korea. The halt notwithstanding, in April 2017, China said that its trade with NK had expanded. In July 2017, China’s trade with North Korea, while the ban on NK coal was said to have slowed imports from NK, was worth $456 million, up from $426 million in July 2016, the year-to-date trade being up 10.2 percent at $3.01 billion.
China has been opposed to secondary sanctions that may be imposed on Chinese firms that do business with North Korea. The UN Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution on September 11, 2017 to impose fresh sanctions on North Korea over its nuclear test on September 3 in violation of previous Security Council resolutions. The new resolution, the third Security Council action concerning the Asian country in five weeks, curtails the country’s oil supply by almost 30 per cent, bans all its textile exports worth $800 million and remittances of labourers from abroad, Xinhua news agency reported. With the new measures, 90 per cent of the country’s exports are now banned.
The new resolution followed a council resolution on August 5, which imposed a ban on the export of coal, iron, iron ore, lead, lead ore, and seafood from North Korea, among other restrictive measures. The council also adopted a presidential statement on August 29 condemning North Korea’s launch of a ballistic missile earlier as well as other missile launches on August 25.
Thus the United Nations just passed the harshest sanctions package it’s ever adopted against North Korea after the country conducted its sixth and largest nuclear test. But the US only managed to push the sanctions through after dropping some key measures — like a total ban on shipments of oil into North Korea — in an effort to get China and Russia on board. Both of those countries are concerned about North Korea’s nuclear program, but they’re also worried that if the world leans too hard on the country it could act rashly or become unstable, potentially creating a refugee or security crisis on their borders. Since both countries have veto power over UN Security Council resolutions, their buy-in is essential. And so the sanctions that passed unanimously through the Security Council on Monday evening represented a compromise between the US position and China and Russia’s. They were undeniably tough, but not crippling for Pyongyang.
Among other things, the new sanctions:
- Ban all North Korean textile exports
- Cut off more than 55 percent of refined petroleum products such as gasoline and fuel going to North Korea
- Cap shipments of crude oil into North Korea at current levels
- Ban countries from hiring new North Korean workers
- Authorize new measures for cracking down on North Korea’s maritime smuggling
- Place new restrictions on North Korean government organizations like the Central Military Commission and the Propaganda and Agitation Department
Combined, the sanctions are designed to take a $1.3 billion chunk out of Pyongyang’s revenues — a serious blow to the North’s economy and its ability to pursue its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.