Don’t be surprised by North Korea’s missiles. They’re doing what they said they would. – Washington Post

 In World
Armchair experts on North Korea – and a fair few who watch from their desks too – like to write off Kim Jong Un as unpredictable. Who knows what this nuclear-armed madman might do next, the refrain goes.

U.S. warplanes conducted a bombing drill Thursday close to the border that separates the two Koreas, as if to intimidate the hard-to-read leader.

But anyone who’s surprised by the last month’s events – from North Korea’s threat to fire missiles close to Guam, to the actual launch of a missile over Japan – hasn’t been paying attention.  

For Pyongyang’s actions have been clearly telegraphed. 

Take the Aug. 9 statement from the North’s official Korean Central News Agency. The army’s top missile unit was drafting a plan to create “an enveloping fire” around Guam with Hwasong-12 missiles, KCNA reported. The plan would be sent to Kim, who would make a decision mid-month.

How three recent launches signaled new leaps in North Korea’s missile capabilities

Sure enough, on Aug. 15, the agency reported that Kim had been to see the missile unit’s leaders – he had a great time there, if his broad smile in the photos is anything to go by – and had reviewed the plan.

He was going to keep an eye on “the foolish and stupid Yankees” a bit longer, KCNA quoted him as saying, making it clear he was talking about the joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises starting on Aug. 21. 

North Korea always protests against the exercises, which it views as a pretext for an invasion, and China and Russia had been urging the United States to tone it down a bit. But they went ahead as planned.

So what did Kim do? On Aug. 29, two days before the end of the exercises, he fired a Hwasong-12 intermediate range ballistic missile technically capable of reaching beyond Guam. 

The United States responded by sending stealth planes and fighter jets on a bombing drill near South Korea’s border with North Korea Thursday, the final day of the exercises.

“You can go back years and find them pretty clearly stating that this is what they’re going to do and this is why they’re going to do it,” said Van Jackson, an international security expert at Victoria University in New Zealand. “And now it’s just happening.”

In a statement after the launch, KCNA said that the missile units were practicing “striking the bases of the U.S. imperialist aggressor forces located in the Pacific operational theater” – an apparent reference to Guam.

The Fact Checker explains what happened to the once not that distant goal of a nuclear deal with North Korea. (Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

There have been clear signals before many of North Korea’s recent provocations. Take its launch of an inter-continental ballistic missile technically capable of reaching the mainland United States.  

In his New Year’s address on Jan. 1, Kim said his rocket scientists were in the final stages of preparing for launch. On July 4, he made good on this. 

“They show their hand when they’re going to do something that could create actual instability,” Jackson said, citing aircraft and maritime warnings head of missile launches over the years, and the advance notification to Japan before it launched a rocket over its neighbor in 2009.

So, despite its often over-the-top language, there’s plenty of reason to take North Korea seriously when it warns, as it did this week, that there will be more missile launches. 

Kim called Tuesday’s launch a “meaningful prelude to containing Guam” and ordered his missile unit to be “fully ready to go into action for decisive battle.”

North Korea is doing several things with these launches, analysts said. One of them is practicing launching under a variety of conditions and from a variety of places.

“This was an operational test,” said Vipin Narang, an expert on nuclear proliferation and strategy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, noting that this launch took place at a new site, just north of the capital.  

“They’re getting units ready to fire a missile without being destroyed,” he said, adding that KCNA has emphasized that this was a rehearsal for a real-life situation.

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