Joe Varner

An unnamed source within the South Korean military has warned the Korean Joongang Daily that, the South has intelligence that North Korea is expected to finish preparations for a nuclear test by March 31" and conduct a test in the first week of April.

By way of an update to my March 14th, 2017, commentary “North Korea's brinksmanship is fraught with danger: Trump is not Obama” you will recall that the post announced what is believed to be a pending North Korean nuclear test. At that time, commercial satellite imagery dated March 7th, 2017, found that North Korea was preparing its Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site for a new nuclear test. The satellite imagery showed preparations and activity around the test site’s North Portal, administrative area, and command and control center. The imagery further showed that equipment and supplies seen earlier had been replaced by a large shipping container. Also revealed are tracks left in the snow that demonstrate the movement from the main storage area to the tunnel. This would represent the sixth test at Punggye-ri, and as reported previously, would indicate that the test facility is capable of conducting tests on short notice, once a nuclear weapon is deployed to the tunnels. New commercial satellite imagery date March 25th, 2017, shows the presence of vehicles, trailers, and likely communications cables laid to the reported test tunnel. As well, it also shows what is believed to be water being pumped from the tunnel and drained downhill so that the area is dry for monitoring and communications systems. In other items of note, recent satellite imagery of North Korea's nuclear research center at Yongbyon showed increased rail and vehicle movements to the facility that could indicate a resumption of reprocessing of spent fuel rods to produce plutonium for a nuclear bomb. Lastly, North Korea has tested a new type of high-thrust rocket engine for the third time this month that might be a component of a North Korean Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile capable of reaching the continental US.

These activities follow an increased pattern of North Korean provocation and brinksmanship since US President, Donald J. Trump, came to power. In February, 2017, North Korea test-fired the KN-11 Pukguksong-2 Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM) that uses solid rocket fuel allowing for faster fueling before launch and less detection time. Additionally, the half-brother of North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, was assassinated in Malaysia using VX nerve gas, a weapon of mass destruction. In mid-March, 2017, North Korea, test-fired four Ballistic Missiles to within 200 kilometers of the Japanese coast. The simultaneous launch of four Ballistic Missiles was a nuclear-warfighting drill, geared to target and overwhelm, American and Japanese air and missile defenses. Towards the end of March, the North test-fired one missile from the air base near Wonsan, but the launch was reportedly a failure. North Korea conducted two nuclear tests last year and 24 ballistic-missile launches.

A pending nuclear test in the next month comes during joint US-South Korean military exercises. Reports continue suggesting that both Japan and South Korea are looking at options for pre-emption. President Trump is reportedly considering deploying B-52 strategic bombers to the troubled region. Additionally, it has been reported, but not confirmed, that SEAL Team Six and Delta Force have been readied to carry out a decapitation strike on the North Korean leadership and that armed drones have been moved into South Korea. The US carrier battle group built around the USS Carl Vinson has joined the joint exercises along with Marine F-35B fighter aircraft and the nuclear-powered attack submarine USS Columbus. This comes after US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson’s, visit to the region, and his warning that pre-emption was on the table. Time will tell.

In the end, the chances of North Korean gross strategic military miscalculation seem increasingly probable in the face of the new Trump Presidency. 

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