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North Korea threat shows Russia's role behind missile program

Moscow and Beijing will gain ground if US military allows itself to be distracted

North Korea's missile program appears to have received a big boost from Russia. (Reuters)

TOKYO -- North Korea's missile launches in early May indicate that leader Kim Jong Un is growing increasingly frustrated now that talks with the U.S. have stalled. They also show Russia lurking behind North Korea's missile buildup.

North Korea fired what appeared to be Iskander short-range ballistic missiles on May 4 and May 9. The Iskander is a Russian-designed solid-fuel missile that can be launched in a hurry.

North Korean troops put U.S. forces in South Korea on alert by launching the Iskander-like missiles from different locations on different days, demonstrating an ability to deploy fixed-fuel short-range missiles across the country.

The Iskander has great accuracy. It uses the Global Navigation Satellite System, or Glonass, Russia's answer to the U.S.-deployed GPS, to strike no more than 2 meters from the bull's-eye.

The missile gives North Korea the ability to strike fixed targets, or U.S. forces stationed in South Korea.

The Iskander is capable of carrying small, Russian-made warheads, but it is unclear whether North Korea has the ability to develop these on its own. Still, dirty bombs, which disperse radioactive material, can be carried, which makes North Korea's launches a threat that cannot be underestimated.

What is more worrying is that advanced missile technology has leaked from Russia to North Korea. Regardless of whether North Korea obtained the missiles directly from Russia, it is obvious that Moscow has played a key role in Pyongyang's weapons development programs.

When North Korea fired a series of ballistic missiles in 2016 and 2017, Japanese and U.S. security officials noticed that Russia could have had something to do with the projectiles' development.

"The accuracy of North Korea's missiles improved all at once," a Japanese security official said. "That wouldn't have been possible without Russia's help."

In May, North Korea tested a "lofted launch," which allows a missile to reach its target more quickly, and a "saturation attack" -- the simultaneous bombardment of a single target with multiple missiles.

Pyongyang also indicated it has the ability to conduct a high-altitude nuclear explosion -- a nuclear detonation in space aimed at destroying an enemy's satellites with powerful electromagnetic waves.

Russian engineers could have given advice and support to North Korea.

The multiple rockets that North Korea launched on May 4, along with the Iskander missiles, appeared to have been either Chinese or a copy of a Chinese missile. Either way, they were guided by Beidou, China's take on GPS.

Quite a few European and U.S. security officials reckon that Russia and China, permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, are loosening the sanctions imposed on North Korea.

Is North Korea becoming a pawn of Russia and China, which would not mind a distracted U.S. military? Should hostilities break out on the Korean Peninsula, U.S. troops would be tied down defending South Korea, making it easier for Russia to become more militarily aggressive in Ukraine and for China to do so against Taiwan.

We thus need to redefine the North Korea situation as an element of a much larger conflict among the U.S., Russia and China. We should do the same with the Iran situation.

The U.S. government is imposing high tariffs on imports from China and has put one of China's top technology companies on a trade blacklist. At the same time, Washington is trying to maintain the status quo on the Korean Peninsula, along the Taiwan Strait, in the Middle East and in Eastern Europe.

Increased military tensions on the Korean Peninsula play right into the hands of Russia and China. The U.S. is expected to continue to keep a watchful eye on China -- one of North Korea's backers -- while indirectly trying to undermine Kim's regime.

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