***Update/31 March/12:50 EDT***According to The Wall Street Journal (and re-printed at Marketwatch.com), the U.S. has moved a squadron of F-22 Raptors to a base in Korea, in response to escalating tensions with Pyongyang. The Journal did not name the installation where the F-22s are operating, but Reuters is reporting the Raptors were deployed to Osan AB, about 30 miles south of Seoul.
Normally based at Langley AFB, VA, the Raptors arrived in January at Kadena AB, Okinawa, as part of a routine, four-month rotation. While F-22s from Langley (and other installations) have been deploying to the Far East for the past four years, the decision to send them on to Korea is yet another reflection of the current crisis on the peninsula. Moving the F-22s to South Korea clearly sends a signal to Pyongyang, but it's unclear if other military moves will follow. When the DPRK captured the USS Pueblo in 1968, the United States deployed scores of aircraft to South Korea (along with other military forces) and many of those assets remained in place until the ship's crew was released.
It would be easy to dismiss the latest threat from North Korea's Kim Jong-un as an exercise in propaganda, if not downright absurdity.
In a move dutifully reported by Pyongyang's "official" news service (and picked up by media outlets around the world), the North Korean leader signed a directive placing his missile forces on standby, ready to strike U.S. targets on short notice. The order was approved at the end of an "emergency" meeting of Kim's senior advisers, and photographs of the event featured a large maps of the United States as a backdrop, with Los Angeles, Washington, DC and Austin, Texas featured as apparent targets.
Never mind that no serious military power would engage in such a clumsy public display. Or that Kim Jong-un looked like someone signing his first auto loan instead of a strike order. Or the serious doubts that exist regarding the DPRK's ability to actually launch a missile that could actually reach targets as distant as Austin, or nation's capital. Indeed, Austin's appearance on the purported strike graphic caused a few chuckles among some analysts. Maybe Mr. Kim and his generals don't realize the Bergstrom AFB closed down more than a decade ago. Or maybe the North Korean dictator and his generals don't know that former President George Bush lives in Dallas, not Austin. Whatever, their reasoning, there are more lucrative targets than the Texas capital, unless you want to disrupt the 2013 UT football season, or next year's SXSW festival.
Still, Kim Jong-un's vow to launch missiles against American targets cannot be rejected out of hand. If his missile units currently lack the weaponry (and reliability) to strike the CONUS, they have hundreds of short and medium-range missiles--mostly SCUD and NO DONG variants--that can hit our bases in South Korea and Japan. Reaching Guam, Hawaii or the CONUS would depend on the operational status of the KN-08 long-range missile, seen for the first time at a North Korean military parade in April 2004. There have been no flight tests of that long-range system, and it's operational status remains questionable.
But that's little consolation for U.S. military personnel at places like Camp Humphreys, Kunsan AB or Osan AB which are within range of scores of North Korean SCUDs. The same holds true for many of our military installations in Japan, including the airbases at Misawa, Yakota, and Atsugi; the Yokusuka Naval base (home to our only carrier group based in the Far East), along with installations on Okinawa, including Kadena AB and various Marine garrisons. American forces in those locations routinely train to operate under chemical contamination conditions for extended periods, assuming that North Korea would target our facilities with a barrage of missiles tipped with persistent and non-persistent chemical munitions. And, at some point, the DPRK will be able to put a nuke on its ballistic missiles--and build one capable of reaching the CONUS--completely changing the threat equation.
It's simply a matter of time. Pyongyang has displayed great patience in working towards its goals of obtaining nuclear weapons and long-range delivery systems. And with the United States and its allies doing little to deter their efforts (aside from economic sanctions and the occasional diplomatic protest), there has no reason for North Korea to abandon its WMD program. Now, with nuclear weapons in the arsenal and an ICBM only a few years (or few months) away, Pyongyang is determined to cross the finish line, knowing that the ability to put a nuke on an American city is a game-changer.
Over the near-term, there is the very real possibility of an accidental showdown between the U.S. and the DPRK. Consider this scenario: in response to continued sabre-rattling by Kim Jong-un, the USAF is directed to fly additional B-52 missions over South Korea. As a two-ship "Buff" formation flies well south of the DMZ, they are locked-on by one of the DPRK's aging SA-5 surface-to-air missile sites. Moments later, a pair of huge GAMMON missiles, with a range of 140 nautical miles, are launched against the B-52s. One of the missiles exploded close enough to a Buff to damage the aircraft and kill one of the crew members. The B-52 makes an emergency landing at Kunsan AB, as the incident escalates into an international crisis.
And that's just one of many situations that could initiate a conflict between the United States and North Korea, begging an important question: what comes next? At this point we don't really know, since President Obama has been largely silent on the North Korean problem in recent weeks, preferring to spend his time on gun control and other domestic issues. To be fair, new Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has been talking about the DPRK, as did his predecessor, Leon Panetta. But there's no substitute for presidential leadership on this pressing problem, since Kim Jong-un's next action will be based (in large measure) on his reading of Barack Obama.
Unfortunately, he may interpret the President's security record as a green light for continued aggression. Mr. Obama took a pass on the Iranian student revolution, allowing the mullahs to launch a bloody crackdown and retain control. He's also been quiet on other key global issues, ranging from China's cyber-attacks against American targets, to the civil war in Syria. Many have equated his caution with kicking the can down the road, hoping that events resolve themselves, minus U.S. leadership. And when we have become involved (read: Lbya), the results have been "less-than-optimal" to coin a phrase.
Mr. Obama ignores North Korea at his own peril, and that of 32,000 American military personnel stationed on the personnel, along with millions of ROK civilians. Kim Jong-un feels emboldened and he's about to give our commander-in-chief a three am phone call. According to his propaganda bureau, the North Korean leader is ready to "settle accounts" with the U.S. and he believes they will be settled on his terms. And so far, Mr. Obama has given him no reason to think otherwise.