Aiming Missiles to Fall Near Guam, North Korea’s Kim Takes New Risk – New York Times

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea’s vow to ignite an “enveloping fire” of test missiles near the American island of Guam is the first time it has specified a target with so much detail, escalating a showdown between Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, and President Trump.

For Mr. Kim, failure of the plan announced on Thursday, which includes precise details like splashdown points and exact travel times for four test missiles, would be a potentially costly blunder that could subvert his authority.

For Mr. Trump, whose dire warnings to North Korea — which he further escalated on Thursday — have echoed Mr. Kim’s own screeds, a successful North Korean test would be an embarrassment that could force him into exceedingly difficult choices about military action.

But North Korea’s prospective test also includes some maneuvering room for a possible compromise, South Korean analysts said. North Korea said the missile launches were still in the planning phase and would not be finalized until later this month, raising the possibility of delay or cancellation.

The four Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missiles to be aimed toward the vicinity of Guam, home to a strategic American base, would fly 2,085.7 miles in 17 minutes, 45 seconds, North Korea said in announcing the plan. The missiles would splash down 18.6 to 24.8 miles from Guam’s coast, the North said.

“By revealing this detailed plan, North Korea is trying to show that its Hwasong-12 missile is a reliable system and that it has capabilities of operating nuclear missiles,” said Shin Beom-chul, a security expert at the government-run Korea National Diplomatic Academy in Seoul.

Even though North Korea has conducted 80 missile tests under Mr. Kim, it has never launched a missile toward a target as far as Guam and has never disclosed such precise flight data in advance.

When it tested an intercontinental ballistic missile on July 28, the missile followed a steep trajectory so that it reached roughly 2,300 miles into space but covered only 998 horizontal miles, falling near the northernmost Japanese island, Hokkaido.

The North also said its Hwasong-12 missiles would fly over southern Japan en route toward Guam, which would be the first time a North Korean missile flew over the country.

Analysts said the North Korean missiles, if launched as the North described, would fall outside Guam’s territorial waters, which extend 13.8 miles from the coast. When the missiles cross Japan, they would also fly far higher than 62 miles above sea level, customarily considered the upper limit of a country’s territorial airspace, they said.

The missile test plans might seem like a reckless response to Mr. Trump’s warning that he would unleash “fire and fury on the North if it continued threatening the United States. But South Korean analysts said the plans reflected a calculated strategy by Mr. Kim.

At home the North Korean leader must rally his impoverished people by showing off his daring in the standoff with the United States, his country’s sworn enemy for more than six decades.

On Sunday, the United Nations Security Council adopted tough sanctions drafted by the United States that could deprive the North of as much as one-third of its export revenue. The sanctions are the toughest yet in a strategy of pressure to dissuade the country from more missile and nuclear tests.

Mr. Kim has promoted nuclear weapons and missiles as a symbol of national pride and survival, saying that sanctions were part of an American plot to subjugate and destroy the country. On Wednesday, his government mobilized 100,000 people in Pyongyang who vowed to support Mr. Kim.

On Thursday, the newspaper of the country’s ruling Workers’ Party, Rodong Sinmun, dedicated all six pages to the mass gathering, which brimmed with anti-American slogans and shouts of a “do-or-die determination to defend the fatherland.”

Even while the missile test is not finalized, it would be difficult for Mr. Kim to reverse course once he approves, analysts said.

If he did, Mr. Kim would be seen as weak in the standoff with the United States, said Kim Dong-yub, an analyst at Kyungnam University’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies in Seoul.

“Amid all the confidence and daring, North Korea may be paradoxically asking the United States to help it stop itself with some form of overture,” Mr. Kim said.

A North Korean missile salvo around Guam would present challenges for the United States and its allies.

If the United States were to decide to intercept the missiles, it would be the first test of its missile defense system’s ability to shoot down actual missiles from an enemy state.

Even though missiles from the North would almost certainly carry dummy warheads, analysts said, a failure to intercept them would deal Mr. Trump a mortifying setback and could even weaken the rationale for installing an American missile defense system in South Korea.

A more aggressive response from the United States, like a military strike on the North’s weapons facilities, would carry huge risks.

On Thursday, NBC News reported that the Pentagon had prepared a specific plan for a pre-emptive strike on North Korea’s missile sites should Mr. Trump order such an attack. It quoted two senior United States military officials — and two senior retired officers — as saying that the key to the plan would be a B-1B heavy bomber attack originating from Andersen Air Force Base on Guam.

Pairs of B-1s from there have conducted frequent practice runs over Japan and South Korea in recent months, accompanied by fighter jets from the two allies.

The B-1B does not carry nuclear weapons. But Mr. Kim would be bound to respond, analysts said.

This week, North Korea hinted at the possible response when its military threatened to “burn up all the objects” in South Korean provinces near the border, including Seoul, a metropolitan area of 25 million people.

Despite such rhetoric, North Korean leaders are careful strategists who have created a reputation as irrational adventurists to intimidate their enemies, South Korean analysts say.

“The North Korean response will be proportional, depending on where the United States strikes,” said Cheon Seong-whun, who served as a presidential secretary for security strategy in Seoul until a few months ago.

But Mr. Cheon said he feared that what appeared to be a duel of bluffing between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim could lead to a military strike and counterstrike “through misperception and misunderstanding.”

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