Thursday, November 30, 2017
Trump Is Circling the Wagons around Kim Jong-un -- Is He Getting Ready to Strike?
THERE IS REAL NEWS TODAY. It is all about North Korea. • • • NORTH KOREA IS AT IT AGAIN. And the screws are tightening around Kim Jong-un. North Korea fired an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) around 1:30 p.m. ET on Tuesday, the first such launch from the rogue regime in more than two months. The ICBM was launched from Sain Ni, North Korea and flew roughly 620 miles before landing in the Sea of Japan. The ICBM flew to an altitude of 2,800 miles into space, according to South Korea's Yonhap News Agency. Compare this with NASA's International Space Station that orbits the Earth from 250 miles into space. In a rare address, Kim Jong-un declared "with pride that now we have finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force." The dictator personally authorized the test launch which NK claimed soared to an altitude of about 4,475 km (2,780 miles) and flew 950 km (590 miles) during its 53-minute flight. It flew higher and longer than any North Korean missile before, landing in the sea, near Japan. Experts said the new "Hwasong-15" missile theoretically gave North Korea the ability to hit the United States, including the East Coast, although it was not clear whether it could carry a nuclear weapon because of re-entry issues. • North Korea has now test-launched three ICBMs. Tuesday's missile flew 1,000 miles higher than the regime's first launch on July 4. South Korea fired pinpoint missiles into nearby waters to make sure North Korea understands it can be "taken under fire" by the South, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said. • The Pentagon says that NK has been working hard to perfect “re-entry” technology so that one day it will have a warhead able to survive re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. This ICBM would be able to hit any city within the US if a warhead is able to survive re-entry. The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) stated that the missile "did not pose a threat to North America, our territories or our allies." Secretary Mattis explained that North Korea is continuing to build missiles that can "threaten everywhere in the world" as it continues to endanger world peace, regional peace and "certainly the United States." House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry told Fox News : "With each launch, [North Korean officials] are advancing their capability and they are making it clear that they can hold the entire US at risk. It is incredibly serious partly because [North Korean dictator] Kim Jong-un is very serious about what he says and what he says is that he wants to hold the entire United States at risk with his missiles, with nuclear weapons, and we have seen him actually deliver on what he says he wants to do." • President Trump told reporters Tuesday that the missile launch "is a situation that we will handle," and added the US will "take care of it." The President was briefed on the launch while it was still in the air, press secretary Sarah Sanders tweeted earlier in the day. Trump delivered an ongoing message to North Korea -- don't underestimate the United States. • • • ANOTHER UN SECURITY COUNCIL MEETING. US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, and ambassadors from Japan and South Korea, requested and got an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council in record time on Wednesday following the NK launch. Let's review what the UK Express had to say about the situation, some of it positive and some of it 'wailing.' The Express used as its lead UN Ambassador Haley's words : "North Korea’s 'continued acts of aggression' are bringing 'the world closer to war, not father from it." And, the next point made by the express was : "The US ambassador to the UN said that China must stop selling oil to North Korea and issued a warning to Beijing that if action wasn't taken - then the USA would have to step in." Then, the express quoted Haley again : “We have never sought war with North Korea, and still today we do not seek it. If war does come, it will be because of continued acts of aggression like we witnessed yesterday.” • Using the UNSC platform to call on China to cut off oil supplies to North Korea in a bid to strongarm Kim Jong-un into halting his nuclear weapons program is a gutsy, in-your-face challenge from Trump to Xi. China is North Korea's sole major ally and they share a long border and significant trade, and it has been China's refusal to completely cut off energy exports to North Korea that is a sticking point between Beijing and the US. The Express reported that "Haley confirmed during her UN speech that President Trump had called Chinese President Xi Jinping to tell him the time had come to cut off crude oil supplies to North Korea." Haley's words were : "We now turn to President Xi to also take that stand. We believe he has an opportunity to do the right thing for the benefit of all countries. China must show leadership and follow through. China can do this on its own, or we can take the oil situation into our own hands." • The Express then noted that earlier in November, President Trump declared North Korea is back on the US watch list for state sponsored terrorism amid rising tensions over Kim Jong-un’s nuclear weapons program. Trump said : “In addition to threatening the world by nuclear devastation, North Korea has repeatedly supported acts of international terrorism, including assassinations on foreign soil. This designation will impose further sanctions and penalties on North Korea and related persons and supports our maximum pressure campaign to isolate the murderous regime.” Trump added that North Korea, who was removed from the list in 2008 under then-President George W Bush, should have been re-listed "a long time ago.” Meanwhile, said the express, some experts, including a former chief US negotiator during the 1994 North Korean nuclear crisis [under President Bill Clinton, who, like every other prior US President, got nowhere with North Korea], have warned it could be a “miscalculation” by Trump and “just further cements a dangerous game of escalatory brinkmanship” amid World War III fears." • • • FOX NEWS TOOK A CUMULATIVE VIEW OF THE NK LAUNCH. Fox News said : "This is the first missile launch since North Korea fired an intermediate-range KN-17 on September 15 that flew over Japan's Hokkaido Island before splashing into the Pacific Ocean. There have been signs indicating Kim Jong-un’s regime was planning a missile launch in recent days. Japan’s Kyodo News reported Monday the Japanese government detected radio signals pointing to a possible missile test in the near future. However, satellite images did not show a missile or movable launch pad. North Korea's September 15 missile launch flew 2,300 miles out, putting the US island territory of Guam within its range. Kim previously threatened to strike the island with four medium-range ballistic missiles in August, but ultimately stepped away from the plan. North Korea’s lull in missile launches made October the only month a test wasn’t conducted since the start of the year. Between February and September, the regime tested a missile an average of every two weeks. This is also the first provocation since Trump designated North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism." • • • NORTH KOREA'S NUCLEAR WEAPONS PROGRAM KEEPS ON GROWING. South Korean unification minister Cho Myoung-gyon told foreign correspondents in Seoul on Tuesday that North Korea is on the verge of achieving full nuclear capability with an ICBM that could carry a nuclear warhead, according to Yonhap News Agency. Cho said : “North Korea has been developing its nuclear weapons at a faster-than-expected pace. We cannot rule out the possibility that North Korea could announce its completion of a clear force within one year." • Hawaii officials announced Wednesday the beginning of monthly siren tests, starting Friday. The tests would be conducted to prepare islanders for a possible nuclear missile attack by North Korea. The tests would be the first since the Cold War. • And, North Korea and Iran are deepening their military relationship, making NK's rapidly developing ICBM capability even more worrisome. • • • HIGH-LEVEL CONTACTS BETWEEN NORTH KOREA AND IRAN HINT AT DEEPER MILITARY COOPERATION. That is what the Washington Institute (TWI) states in a Monday article by Jay Solomon, who says : "Pongyang has emerged a critical partner in Teheran's 'Axis of Resistance,' and officials warn that their joint efforts may extend to weapons of mass destruction. Solomon states : "High-level meetings between North Korean and Iranian officials in recent months are stoking concerns inside the U.S. government about the depth of military ties between the two American adversaries. In September, President Trump ordered US intelligence agencies to conduct a fresh review of any potential bilateral nuclear collaboration. Yet officials in Washington, Asia, and the Middle East who track the relationship indicate that Pyongyang and Teheran have already signaled a commitment to jointly develop their ballistic missile systems and other military/scientific programs. North Korea has vastly expanded its nuclear and long-range missile capabilities over the past year, developing intercontinental ballistic missiles that could potentially target the western United States with nuclear warheads. Over the same period, US intelligence agencies have spotted Iranian defense officials in Pyongyang, raising the specter that they might share dangerous technological advances with each other. 'All of these contacts need to be better understood,' said one senior US official working on the Middle East. 'This will be one of our top priorities.' " • We have talked before about the August visit to Iran of Kim Yong-nam, North Korea's number two political leader and head of its legislature, who departed Pyongyang with great fanfare for an extended visit to Iran. Solomon says : "The official reason was to attend the inauguration of President Hassan Rouhani, but the length of the visit raised alarm bells in Washington and allied capitals. North Korean state media said the trip lasted four days, but Iranian state media said it was ten, and that Kim was accompanied by a large delegation of other top officials." • Kim Yong-nam had last visited Teheran in 2012, focused on signing a bilateral scientific cooperation agreement with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. According to US intelligence officials, that pact looked very similar to the one NK signed with Syria in 2002 -- and we know that five years later, Israeli jets destroyed a building in eastern Syria that the United States and UN believe was a nearly operational North Korean-built nuclear reactor. Current and former US officials consider NK's construction of the graphite reactor in Syria's Deir al-Zour province as one of the greatest acts of nuclear proliferation in history. Called al-Kibar, the facility was almost an exact replica of the Yongbyon reactor that North Korea has used to harvest plutonium for its own nuclear weapons arsenal. The Syrian reactor was close to being operational when Israeli jets destroyed it in 2007, killing a number of North Korean technicians working there. The US government and the UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, have yet to close their investigations into the al-Kibar reactor. Where did Syria get the infrastructure, raw materials, fuel fabrication plants, uranium and money to build the plant -- one theory is that Iran funded al-Kibar and sought to outsource some of its nuclear research to Syria. And, according to David Asher, former special coordinator of the State Department's North Korea Working Group : "It seems pretty clear the North Koreans never stopped working in Syria, which raises a whole bunch of other questions." • Similarly, Kim Yong-nam's 2017 trip focused on more than just lending support to Rouhani, according to North Korean and Iranian state media. Kim and Vice Foreign Minister Choe Hui-chol inaugurated NK's new embassy in Teheran, a symbol of deepening ties between the two governments. They also held bilateral meetings with foreign leaders, many from countries that have been significant buyers of North Korean weapons in recent decades -- Zimbabwe, Cuba, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Namibia. In his TWI article, Solomon says the Trump administration has been intensifying diplomatic pressure on all these countries to cut their economic and military ties with Pyongyang. And, like Pyongyang, Teheran has moved forward with a string of ballistic missile tests in recent months, despite facing UN Security Council resolutions and condemnation by the Trump administration. After meeting with Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani on August 4, Kim declared, "Iran and North Korea share a mutual enemy [the United States]. We firmly support Iran on its stance that missile development does not need to be authorized by any nation." • BUT, COVERT MEETINGS, according to Solomon, have gone unreported in state media and are even more worrisome for allied governments : "In recent years, US and South Korean intelligence services have tracked a steady stream of Iranian and North Korean officials visiting each other in a bid to jointly develop their defense systems. Many of the North Koreans are from defense industries or secretive financial bodies that report directly to dictator Kim Jong-un, including Offices 39 and 99 of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea. Last year, US authorities reported that missile technicians from one of Iran's most important defense companies, the Shahid Hemmat Industrial Group, had traveled to North Korea to help develop an eighty-ton rocket booster for ballistic missiles. One of the company's top officials, Sayyed Javad Musavi, has allegedly worked in tandem with the Korea Mining Development Trading Corp. (KOMID), which the United States and UN have sanctioned for being a central player in procuring equipment for Pyongyang's nuclear and ballistic missile programs. For example, Shahid Hemmat has illegally shipped valves, electronics, and measuring equipment to KOMID for use in ground testing of space-launch vehicles and liquid-propellant ballistic missiles." • THE AXIS OF RESISTANCE that used to be Iraan, Russia and China, now seems to include North Korea. In fact, Solomon asserts that : "North Korea has emerged as a critical partner in the alliance of states, militias, and political movements known as the "Axis of Resistance," which Teheran developed to challenge US power in the Middle East. Pyongyang has served as an important supplier of arms and equipment to Iran's most important Arab ally, Syria's Assad regime, during the country's ongoing war. And Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have procured weapons from North Korea in their efforts to topple the internationally recognized government in Yemen, according to current and former US officials." The inclusion of North Korea in the Axis of Resistance was evident in Kim Yong-nam's August trip -- as official support came from Russia and China. Solomon states : "On his way to Iran, he first flew to Vladivostok on Air Koryo, the North Korean airline that the US Treasury Department sanctioned in December 2016 for financially aiding the Kim Jog-un regime and its ballistic missile program. He then flew on to Teheran via Russia's state carrier, Aeroflot, passing through Chinese airspace. • Solomon asks the obvious question needing to be answered -- will a smoking gun appear proving direct nuclear cooperation between Iran and North Korea? The US government and the International Atomic Energy Agency say they have yet to see such conclusive evidence. But, says Solomon, Iranian opposition groups allege that senior regime officials have visited North Korea to observe some of its six nuclear weapons tests, and : "Chief among these officials, they add, is Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, an Iranian general whom the UN has accused of working closely with Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani on secret nuclear weapons research. Current and former US intelligence officials say these accusations cannot be ruled out, so all known contacts between the two regimes need to be scrutinized closely." NORTH KOREA IS STILL IN SYRIA. Jay Solomon is well-placed to analyze both Iran and Syria -- he is a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at The Washington Institute and author of "The Iran Wars: Spy Games, Bank Battles, and the Secret Deals That Reshaped the Middle East." In a November 2 TWI article, Solomon said that the Syria-North Korea alliance has been strengthened during the Syrian civil war : "North Korea's decades-old military alliance with the Assad regime is stoking fears inside the Trump administration that Kim Jong-un is not only profiting from Syria's six-year war, but also learning from it. According to US, Arab, and Israeli officials, he has continued to supply weapons and military equipment to Damascus throughout the conflict despite facing numerous international sanctions. In recent months, UN investigators have uncovered North Korean supplies being smuggled to Syria's Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC), the secretive body that oversees Bashar al-Assad's chemical weapons program. Syrian opposition groups and the UN also allege that North Korean military advisors are present inside the country to help Assad, a charge Pyongyang has denied. Such activities have led officials to conclude that North Korea's alliance with Damascus poses a long-term security threat to the United States and its allies in the Middle East and Asia -- a threat that could grow as Pyongyang advances its nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities, and as Assad strengthens his hold on power with help from Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah. Officials already fear that North Korean advisors have been integrated into the planning and operations of these military players. Even more worrisome, the West has proven incapable of shutting down Pyongyang's arms shipments to the wider Middle East, which are expected to become even more lethal in the coming years." • American and South Korean officials say the Syria-North Korea alliance goes back to the 1960s and is far deeper and more entrenched than many Middle East analysts realize. Pyongyang and Damascus were both clients of the Soviet Union during the Cold War and established formal diplomatic relations in 1966. North Korean fighter pilots aided the Syrian air force during its historic conflicts with Israel, including the 1967 Six Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. NK has also sent tank crews and missile technicians to Syria to support its unending "struggle" against Israel. NK's assistance to Damascus has intensified as the Kim family develops more sophisticated weapons systems. Solomon says that according to current and former US officials, North Korea has proven willing to transfer equipment directly to Damascus and help the regime procure it from third countries such as China. The latter contention is particularly disturbing given that Pyongyang has used front companies across China to not only procure equipment for its military and nuclear weapons, but also export it. • North Korea analysts also believe Kim Jong-un is learning from al-Assad's battlefield tactics, including the use of chemical weapons. There is little question, says Solomon, that Kim is willing to use such weapons abroad -- Washington believes he authorized the use of VX nerve agent this February to assassinate his half-brother Kim Jong Nam in Malaysia, so he can be expected to use his vast chemical arsenal in any conflict with the West. Military strategist Bruce Bechtol Jr. in a 2015 report for the Korean Journal of Defense Analysis write : "Korean analysts should take note of how chemical weapons were used in the [Syrian] civil war because this is likely going to be a test-bed for future North Korean actions in conflict with the South." • • • THE WEST SEEMS INCAPABLE OF COMING TO TERMS WITH THE NORTH KOREAN MENACE. If the US government and the UN International Atomic Energy Agency cannnot find answers to the al-Kibar auestions, and if the North Koreans have never stopped working in Syria, there are probably a lot of other unanswered questions. • For example, Solomon states that US government cables indicate that officials in the George W. Bush and Obama administrations were equally stunned by the web of front companies Pyongyang used to procure equipment for Syria's missile programs. North Korean brokers purchased graphite, specialty steel, nozzle throats, and related materials to help Syria develop Scuds and other short- and medium-range ballistic missiles. Some of these transfers directly involved the SSRC, which US and Israeli officials believe is central to all of the Assad regime's nonconventional weapons programs. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote in 2009 : "This dependence on North Korean sources both directly and via North Korean brokers for a range of missile-related materials, advanced chemicals, and technology is likely to continue, given the difficulties Syria has encountered purchasing such items directly from other suppliers." Pyongyang's smuggling for al-Assad and the SSRC has continued, if not accelerated, throughout Syria's current war, even as international sanctions against both regimes have been strengthened, and according to Solomon : "Likewise, North Korean government workers maintain a heavy presence in Damascus. A September report by the UN panel tasked with overseeing North Korea sanctions said it 'continues to investigate the widespread presence of [such] nationals...in Africa and the Middle East, particularly in the Syrian Arab Republic, acting on behalf of or at the direction of designated entities, including their involvement in prohibited activities such as trade in surface-to-air missile systems.' " Solomon stated : "The panel noted that two UN member states had interdicted shipments of North Korean equipment bound for Syria in recent months. The consignees for these shipments were Syrian companies sanctioned by the European Union and Washington for serving as SSRC fronts. Syrian-based representatives from one of Pyongyang's main arms suppliers, the Korea Mining Development Trading Corp. (KOMID), were believed to be facilitating the shipments. According to the UN, 'The panel is investigating reported prohibited chemical, ballistic missile and conventional arms cooperation, including activities on Syrian Scud missile programs and maintenance and repair of Syrian surface-to-air missile air defense systems.' " • President Trump and his administration have increased US efforts to choke off North Korea's overseas businesses and proliferation networks. The President has also ordered US intelligence agencies to redouble their efforts to uncover all military cooperation between NK and Iran, including missile work and potential nuclear weapons links. US officials have told Solomon they are worried that North Korea has been integrated into the coalition of Middle Eastern regimes, terrorist groups, and militias that Teheran dubs the "Axis of Resistance." This alliance has helped Assad but is also active in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories. • But, even with Trump's stepped-up efforts, Solomon say that some fear that Kim Jong-un's rapidly expanding weapons arsenal -- which now includes as many as twenty atomic bombs, according to US and Chinese officials -- could be even more difficult for the United States and UN to track. The White House will need to mobilize all of its Middle Eastern and Asian allies to guard against acts of proliferation potentially worse than the reactor North Korea built in eastern Syria. There is wide consensus that the cash-strapped North has every incentive to try selling even its most advanced weapons systems. In recent years, the United States has tracked North Korean arms sales to some of its closest regional allies, including Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, so preventing transfers to Iran's "axis" will no doubt be more difficult than ever. • • • DEAR READERS, with all these rumors and intel reports floating around, we can be sure that President Trump isn't the only Western leader who sees the dangers posed by North Korea. But, he seems ot be the only one who is actively trying to build the consensus needed to tamp down and eliminate North Korea's nuclear capabilities and aggressive military presence in the Middle East. On TV, every day since the ICBM launch on Tuesday, we have been accosted by diplomats and ex-diplomats telling us how wrong Trump is. Reuters reported that President Trump dismissed a Chinese diplomatic effort to rein in North Korea’s weapons program as a failure on Thursday, while Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Beijing should do more to limit oil supplies to Pyongyang. Reuters took an anti-Trump tome, saying : "In a tweet, Trump delivered another insulting barb against North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who he called 'Little Rocket Man' and a 'sick puppy' after North Korea test-fired its most advanced missile to date on Wednesday." Rueters quoted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as saying that Washington’s approach was dangerously provocative. Lavrov pointed to joint US-South Korean military exercises planned for December and accused the United States of trying to provoke Kim into “flying off the handle” over his missile program to hand Washington a pretext to destroy his country. He also flatly rejected a US call to cut ties with Pyongyang over its nuclear and ballistic missile program, calling US policy toward North Korea deeply flawed. Russia also sells oil products to North Korea and thousands of North Koreans work in Russia, sending remittances back to the authorities in Pyongyang. In his remarks on Thursday, Lavrov said Haley’s call for the world to isolate North Korea was wrong : “We have already said many times that sanctions pressure has exhausted itself.” • Before he tweeted, Trump spoke with Chinese President Chinese President Xi Jinping and reiterating his call for Beijing to use its leverage against North Korea. So far, China says it will support sanctions but has not mentioned what, if anything, it will do to curtail oil shipments ot North Korea. Meanwhile, on Thursday, Secretary of state Rex Tillerson welcomed Chinese efforts on North Korea, but said Beijing could do more to limit its oil exports to the country : “The Chinese are doing a lot. We do think they could do more with the oil. We’re really asking them to please restrain more of the oil, not cut it off completely.” It was clear that Reuters favored the Tillerson approach : "While Trump has been bellicose at times in rhetoric toward North Korea, Tillerson has persistently held out hopes for a return to dialogue if North Korea shows it is willing to give up its nuclear weapons program." And, it is surely that difference of opinion about how to deal with North Korea, as well as Iran, that has been feeding rumors that President Trump is getting ready to replace Tillerson at State -- Tillerson said it himself on Thrusday. For some weeks now, the name of Mike Pompeo, the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, has been floated as Tillerson's replacement. • President Trump -- and his administration, most notably UN Ambassador Nikki Haley -- have used tough rhetoric and warnings that all options, including military ones, are on the table in dealing with North Korea, but have stressed that a diplomatic solution to the crisis is preferred, but Tillerson is more like European leaders who try to mollify Kim Jong-un while pretending there is no real problem with North Korea being a rogue nuclear country with ICBMs. Ambassador Haley at the Wednesday emergency UN Security Council meeting warned that North Korea’s leadership would be “utterly destroyed” if war were to break out. • In a very different tone than he usually uses when speaking about President Trump, Senator Lindsey Graham told CNN : "North Korea is seriously 'miscalculating' President Donald Trump's potential response to its continued provocations and missile tests. That is likely because previous US Presidents have not always made the consequences real. Every President before him has said, 'we're not going to allow North Korea to have nuclear weapon.' Well, they've got nuclear weapons. Every President before President Trump has said, 'we're never going to allow them to hit the homeland with an ICBM with a nuclear weapon on top.' They're about to get a capability. This [the Tuesday ICBM launch] is a provocative act by North Korea. They're miscalculating President Trump. And he is ready, if necessary, to destroy this regime, to protect America. And I hope the regime understands. If President Trump has to pick between destroying the North Korean regime and the American homeland, he's going to destroy the regime. I hope China understands that also." Even it it means hundreds of thousands of North Koreans are hurt, Graham said he stands with Trump if he decides to retaliate. • Let's add it all up -- Haley told China to stop selling oil to North Korea or the US would do the job, Trump called Xi Jinping, soft-peddling Secretary of State Tillerson appears to be on the way out, hardliner Mike Pompeo may be waiting in the wings at State. Is Trump gathering his forces -- diplomatic, intel and military -- for a retaliatory strike at North Korea's nuclear mountain? When Senator Graham says he supports a strike, we can be pretty sure there is at least serious late-stage planning about military retaliation to make the US position clear to Kim Jong-un and his henchmen.