June 1, 2017 7:29 am JST

US-North Korea tensions inching toward breaking point

Saber-rattling escalates as aircraft carriers, submarines sail Sea of Japan

TETSURO KOSAKA, Nikkei senior staff writer

The USS Ronald Reagan was deployed to Japan's Yokosuka Base in October. (Photo courtesy of Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force)

TOKYO -- Amid repeated military provocations by North Korea, the U.S. made the unusual decision to dispatch two aircraft carriers to the Sea of Japan this week, while also announcing that it successfully carried out a missile-intercept test.

North Korean forces have been repeatedly test-firing ballistic missiles since March. But the rogue nation went one step further on Sunday, when it tested a new surface-to-air missile designed to shoot down incoming aircraft.

While Pyongyang has not released much detail, the rocket was believed to be a Russian-made S-300, or an upgraded version. Should an armed clash break out in the Korean Peninsula, the U.S. will likely fire numerous cruise missiles from ships and submarines at the North's key facilities. But it is not impossible to shoot down these relatively slow projectiles.

"By firing a surface-to-air missile at this time, North Korea likely wanted to prove it had ways to counter a U.S. attack," a Japanese security official said.

Then on Monday, Pyongyang tested a new short- to medium-range ballistic missile with control wings on its warhead, which it said came within 7 meters of the intended target. While experts have questioned the claim, the launch sent a clear warning to U.S. carriers in the Sea of Japan.

Another Pyongyang missile fired on May 14 reached a maximum altitude of at least 2,000km, and reentered the atmosphere at speeds at or above Mach 15 before falling into the Sea of Japan. Japan's two-tier missile defense system is incapable of shooting down such a weapon.

By linking several of the engines used in this missile, North Korea could even strike the continental U.S. Washington has drawn the red line at Pyongyang's possession of an intercontinental ballistic missile, but that reality is only one short step away.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Defense announced it has successfully conducted its first ICBM intercept drill in the Pacific Ocean. Just as North Korea is reacting to American carriers and cruise-missile-equipped vessels in nearby waters, the U.S. is preparing for a scenario where Pyongyang acquires ICBMs.

American aircraft carriers, destroyers and submarines are now sailing the Sea of Japan, in addition to Japan's Self-Defense Forces. North Korea also possesses numerous submarines, meaning an unintentional maritime clash is not out of the question.

The USS Carl Vinson, one of two American carriers near the Korean Peninsula, left the waters Wednesday night, according to the South Korean navy. Washington may have stepped on the brakes to prevent further tensions, but it is unclear whether the ship will head toward the East China Sea or back toward home.

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