May 18, 2017 3:00 pm JST

US tightens noose around North Korea

Huge military buildup, increased reconnaissance foreshadow possible first strike

TETSURO KOSAKA, Nikkei senior staff writer

TOKYO -- With the U.S. and North Korea locked in a dangerous face-off over Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs, U.S. forces are poised to bring the battle to Kim Jong Un.

Two aircraft carrier strike groups and a nuclear submarine have been deployed to the Korean Peninsula to carry out missile attacks against North Korea should the country continue its provocations.

An estimated 300 cruise missiles are ready to hit key military targets in the secluded country, including underground facilities. 

The U.S. is hoping that ratcheting up military pressure on Pyongyang will force concessions over its arms programs.

On April 8, the U.S. Navy announced it had ordered the USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group to sail from Singapore to waters off the Korean Peninsula. On the way, the armada detoured around Indonesia before finally arriving. 

The strike group's leisurely cruise to the Korean Peninsula was interpreted by some as a sign of miscommunication within U.S. President Donald Trump's administration. In fact, the announcement was a tactical move aimed at obtaining intelligence about North Korean military facilities, according to multiple security policy sources, as it sent the North scrambling to prepare for war.

Large movements of personnel and supplies were reportedly moved to underground facilities while radio communications thought to be reserved for emergencies were detected. U.S. forces closely monitored these moves to identify possible primary targets in the event of hostilities.

Ready to attack

The U.S. may launch pre-emptive strikes against North Korea should Kim conduct a sixth nuclear test or test-fire an intercontinental ballistic missile. "The U.S. forces see the current situation as the last chance to dismantle the nuclear arms program of North Korea, which is likely to keep producing atomic bombs," says a Japanese security policy official.

First to be targeted by U.S. cruise missiles would likely be nuclear test sites, uranium enrichment facilities and tunnels hiding mobile missile launchers. An estimated 300 missiles would be fired -- five times the number used for April's missile attack on Syria.

The U.S. Navy would play the leading role in any attack.

On April 25, the USS Michigan, an Ohio-class nuclear-powered submarine armed with some 150 cruise missiles, appeared off the southern coast of South Korea. Locations of nuclear submarines are usually highly classified, however the navy deliberately showed its hand in order to turn up the heat on Kim.

On May 16, the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan sailed from its home port of Yokosuka, Japan, joining the Carl Vinson strike group to ensure sufficient firepower for any possible attacks.  In addition, the military may employ strategic bombers from the U.S. mainland and its bases in Japan.

A number of special weapons capable of disabling the North's extensive underground facilities could also be used. The highly destructive Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb -- recently dropped on a tunnel of the Islamic State in Afghanistan -- could also be used to destroy the North Korean military command center in northern Pyongyang, where Kim Jong Un would be expected to command operations during a conflict.

The Trump administration has adopted a two-pronged approach in its dealings with North Korea. While ramping up diplomatic and military pressure, the U.S. is also primed to respond with military action to any serious provocations from Pyongyang.

If North Korea is attacked, it could fire thousands of artillery shells and rockets toward Seoul. Any such attacks, however, would expose the North's firing sites, making them vulnerable to counterattack by the U.S. and South Korea coalition.

The two countries have already deployed troops as part of the joint U.S.-South Korean military exercise this spring.

Many North Korean rocket and artillery systems are outdated and difficult to move. After their initial salvos, they would be quickly targeted and put out of action.

Coming to a head

North Korea risks serious economic consequences should its showdown with the U.S. drag on. Rice planting must be finished by the end of June, and soldiers are an essential part of the agricultural workforce during this period. Any long delays could lead to a food shortages this fall -- a fact not lost on the U.S., as its tactics apparently include starving the country into submission.

But the Kim regime is showing no signs of ending its military provocations, firing a new type of ballistic missile on Sunday.

Another important factor in the current crisis is the recent election of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has vowed to adopt a conciliatory stance toward the North.

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