The United States and South Korean armed forces went on the highest level of alert – Watchcon 2 – Thursday, April 11, ready for multiple launches after at least one North Korean ballistic Musudan missile was sighted fueled and ready to launch at any moment on the country’s eastern coast. With an estimated range of more 3,400 kilometers, it places US bases in Guam and the Okinawa islands within range as well as South Korea and Japan.
According to a senior US defense official in Washington, the floating SBX X-band radar is in position for tracking missiles fired by Pyongyang. South Korean officials, commenting on the apparent movement of several ballistic missiles on North Korea’s east coast, report that this is an apparent attempt to confuse intelligence monitoring by the US, Japan and South Korea.
The US and Japan, which earlier deployed Patriot interceptors in Tokyo, have said that any missile would be intercepted if it showed signs of heading for the United States or Japan. But neither mentioned a US military target or the possibility of a missile flying over Japan to land in the Pacific Ocean.
Military sources in Washington point to the US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s warning Wednesday that North Korea is “skating very close to a dangerous line” with its bellicose rhetoric on nuclear arms, and his stress on America’s ability to protect itself and its allies, as the most serious statement to come from the Obama administration so far. It was the first warning of a US military response to a North Korean missile launch.
South Koreans are for the first time showing signs of anxiety about a possible outbreak of war. People have started stocking food and parents were telling reporters Thursday that children are being kept home from school in case of a sudden war emergency.
Several Western intelligence sources attribute Pyongyang’s saber-rattling to a power struggle ongoing in the top ranks of the North Korean military command between supporters of the young leader Kim Jong-Un and his opponents, who say he lacks the qualities befitting a commander-in-chief of the North Korean armed forces.
The latter group of generals urges reducing Kim to a titular role and keeping control of the military in their own hands.
In his drive for military credibility, say those sources, the young leader is constantly photographed on visits to army units accompanied by a bevy of generals and soldiers and demonstratively testing their weapons and barking out operational orders.
In one television segment aired by North Korean state TV Wednesday, hundreds of North Korean soldiers were shown standing in their positions and then, upon catching sight of the president and party, rushing toward him in great excitement, although they didn’t dare get too close.
Such staged scenes, say the sources, point up the North Korean president’s weakness and uncertainty rather than his control and popularity in the army.
Those sources predict that Kim Jong-Un may feel compelled to assert himself by ordering a missile launch. Backing down at this point, a failed launch or a foreign interception would be a black mark against him and seriously undermine a leadership which is rooted in a ruthless personality cult. It might even lead to his ouster.
The Korean crisis heads the agenda of the G8 foreign ministers meeting in London Thursday.