Nuclear-armed North Korea said Tuesday its missile launches were training for a strike on US bases in Japan, as global condemnation of the regime swelled.
Three of the four missiles fired Monday came down provocatively close to US ally Japan, in waters that are part of its exclusive economic zone, representing a challenge to US President Donald Trump.
In separate phone calls, Trump — whose rhetoric on the campaign trail had raised doubts about the issue — reaffirmed Washington's "ironclad commitment" to Japan and South Korea.
The US will demonstrate to Pyongyang that there were "very dire consequences" for its actions, the White House said in a statement.
The United Nations Security Council scheduled an emergency meeting for Wednesday after a request by Washington and Tokyo to discuss additional measures following the launch.
Under UN resolutions, Pyongyang is barred from any use of ballistic missile technology, and the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, said on Twitter that the world "won't allow" North Korea to continue on its "destructive path".
But six sets of UN sanctions since its first nuclear test in 2006 have failed to halt its drive for what it insists are defensive weapons.
– 'Feasting his eyes' –
Kim Jong-Un gave the order for the drill to start, the North's official Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) reported.
"Feasting his eyes on the trails of ballistic rockets", he praised the Hwasong artillery unit that carried it out, it said.
"The four ballistic rockets launched simultaneously are so accurate that they look like acrobatic flying corps in formation, he said," the agency added, referring to Kim.
The military units involved are "tasked to strike the bases of the US imperialist aggressor forces in Japan in contingency", KCNA said.
The Korean version of the KCNA report said the North's missile launch demonstrated its readiness to "wipe out" enemy forces with a "merciless nuclear strike".
A series of photographs published by the North's Rodong Sinmun newspaper showed Kim watching the missiles rise into the air and another of him smiling gleefully, clapping with other officials.Seoul and Washington last week began annual joint military exercises that always infuriate Pyongyang.
It regularly issues threats against its enemies, and carried out two atomic tests and a series of missile launches last year, but Monday was only the second time its devices have come down in Japan's EEZ.
The launches came ahead of a trip by new US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to the region.
Choi Kang, an analyst at the Seoul-based Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said the launch was a warning to Tokyo.
"North Korea is demonstrating that its target is not just limited to the Korean peninsula anymore but can extend to Japan at anytime and even the US," he said.
Trump has described North Korea as a "big, big problem" and vowed to deal with the issue "very strongly".
White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Monday the administration was taking steps to "enhance our ability to defend against North Korea's ballistic missiles".
The New York Times reported at the weekend that under former president Barack Obama the US stepped up cyber attacks against North Korea to try to sabotage its missiles before launch or just as they lift off.
– Beijing frustrated –
The US military has begun deploying the THAAD anti-ballistic missile defense system to South Korea to protect against threats from the North, US Pacific Command said, with its first elements arriving on Monday.
Pyongyang wants to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching the US mainland — something Trump has vowed would not happen.
It has undoubtedly made progress in its efforts in recent years, although questions remain over its ability to master re-entry technology and miniaturise a nuclear weapon sufficiently to fit it onto a missile warhead.
The THAAD deployment has infuriated China, the North's key diplomatic ally and crucial to efforts to persuade it to change its ways, and it has imposed several steps seen as economic retaliation against South Korea.
Foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Tuesday that Beijing remained "firmly opposed" to THAAD and will "resolutely take necessary measures to defend our own security interests".
Beijing has become increasingly frustrated with Pyongyang's nuclear and missile activities, and last month announced a suspension of all coal imports from the North until the end of the year — a crucial source of foreign currency.
The North's missile launch could have been an attempt to distract attention from the murder of Kim Jong-Nam at Kuala Lumpur International Airport last month, South Korea's acting president Hwang Kyo-Ahn said Tuesday.
Seoul has blamed Pyongyang for the killing of the half-brother of the North's leader by two women using VX nerve agent.
With diplomatic tensions soaring, Pyongyang announced Tuesday it was banning Malaysians in North Korea from leaving the country, prompting a similar response from Kuala Lumpur. Both had already expelled the other's ambassador.
U.S. Considering "Direct Strike" Against North Korea
Just after North Korea carried out a missile test and a high-profile assassination of Kim Jong Un's half-brother in Malyasia, the Wall Street Journal reported that the US was considering directmilitary action against the Kim regime.
US President Donald Trump has apparently honed in on North Korea as his most serious external challenge, and has reportedly declared them the single greatest threat to the United States. In January, Trump tweeted that North Korean missile hitting the US, as they've often threatened, "won't happen!"
But in reality, taking out North Korea's nuclear capabilities, or decapitating the Kim regime, would pose serious risks to even the US military's best platforms.
Business Insider spoke with Stratfor's Sim Tack, a senior analyst and an expert on North Korea, to determine exactly how the US could potentially carry out a crippling strike against the Hermit Kingdom.
First, a decision would need to be made.
(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Military action against North Korea wouldn't be pretty. Some number of civilians in South Korea, possibly Japan, and US forces stationed in the Pacific would be likely to die in the undertaking no matter how smoothly things went.
In short, it's not a decision any US commander-in-chief would make lightly.
But the US would have to choose between a full-scale destruction of North Korea's nuclear facilities and ground forces or a quicker attack on only the most important nuclear facilities. The second option would focus more on crippling North Korea's nuclear program and destroying key threats to the US and its allies.
Since a full-scale attack could lead to "mission creep that could pull the US into a longterm conflict in East Asia," according to Tack, we'll focus on a quick, surgical strike that would wipe out the bulk of North Korea's nuclear forces.
Then, the opening salvo — a stealth air blitz and cruise missiles rock North Korea's nuclear facilities.
The best tools the US could use against North Korea would be stealth aircraft like the F-22 and B-2 bomber, according to Tack.
The US would slowly but surely position submarines, Navy ships, and stealth aircraft at bases near North Korea in ways that avoid provoking the Hermit Kingdom's suspicions.
Then, when the time was right, bombers would rip across the sky and ships would let loose with an awesome volley of firepower. The US already has considerable combat capability amassed in the region.
"Suddenly you'd read on the news that the US has conducted these airstrikes," said Tack.
While the F-22 and F-35 would certainly do work over North Korea missile production sites, it really a job for the B-2.
As a long-range stealth bomber with a huge ordnance capacity, the B-2 could drop massive, 30,000 pound bombs on deep underground bunkers in North Korea — and they could do it from as far away as Guam or the continental United States.
The first targets…
The initial targets would include nuclear reactors, missile production facilities, and launching pads for ICBMs, according to Tack.
Cruise missiles would pour in from the sea, F-22s would beat down North Korea's rudimentary air defenses, and B-2s would pound every known missile site into dust.
Planes like the F-35 and F-22 would frantically hunt down mobile missile launchers, which can hide all over North Korea's mountainous terrain. In the event that North Korea does get off a missile, the US and South Korea have layered missile defenses that would attempt to shoot it out of the sky.
Next, the US would try to limit North Korean retaliation.
Once the US has committed the initial strike against North Korea, how does Kim Jong-un respond?
Even with its nuclear facilities in ashes and the majority of their command and control destroyed "North Korea has a lot of options," said Tack. "They have their massive, massive conventional artillery options that can start firing at South Korea in a split second."
But most North Korean artillery can't reach Seoul, South Korea's capital.
Additionally, Seoul has significant underground bunkers and infrastructure to quickly protect its citizens, though some measure of damage to the city would be unavoidable.
According to Tack, much of this artillery would instead fire on the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas, detonating mines so that North Korean ground forces can push through. Also within range would be US forces near the DMZ.
Some 25,000 American soldiers are stationed in South Korea, all of whom would face grave danger from North Korea's vast artillery installations.
But the North Korean artillery isn't top of the line. They could focus on slamming US forces, or they could focus on hitting Seoul. Splitting fire between the two targets would limit the impact of their longer-range systems.
Additionally, as the artillery starts to fire, it becomes and exposed sitting duck for US jets overhead.
The next phase of the battle would be underwater.
North Korea has a submarine that can launch nuclear ballistic missiles, which would represent a big risk to US forces as it can sail outside of the range of established missile defenses.
Fortunately, the best submarine hunters in the world sail with the US Navy.
Helicopters would drop special listening buoys, destroyers would use their advanced radars, and US subs would listen for anything unusual in the deep. North Korea's antique submarine would hardly be a match for the combined efforts of the US, South Korea, and Japan.
While the submarine would greatly complicate the operation, it would most likely find itself at the bottom of the ocean before it could do any meaningful damage.
What happens if Kim Jong Un is killed?
"Decapitation" or the removal of the Kim regime would be a huge blow to the fiercely autocratic Hermit Kingdom.
Kim Jong-un has reportedly engaged in a vicious campaign to execute senior officials with packs of dogs, mortar fire, and anti-aircraft guns for a simple reason — they have ties to China, according to Tack.
Jong-un's removal of anyone senior with ties to China means that he has consolidated power within his country to a degree that makes him necessary to the country's functioning.
Without a leader, North Korean forces would face a severe blow to their morale as well as their command structure, but it wouldn't end the fight.
"Technically North Korea is under the rule of their 'forever leader' Kim Il Sung," said Tack, adding that "a decapitation strike wouldn’t guarantee that the structures below him wouldn’t fall apart, but it would be a damn tricky problem for those that remain after him."
Unfortunately, North Koreans aren't shy about putting their leader first, and at the first indication of an attack, Kim would likely be tucked away in a bunker deep underground while his countrymen bore the brunt of the attack.
Then the US defends.
U.S. and South Korean marines participate in a U.S.-South Korea joint landing operation drill in Pohang March 30, 2015. The drill is part of the two countries' annual military training called Foal Eagle, which runs from March 2 to April 24. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
"If North Korea doesn’t retaliate, they’ve lost capability and look weak," said Tack.
Indeed few would expect North Korea to go quietly after suffering even a crippling attack.
Through massive tunnels bored under the DMZ, North Korea would try to pour ground troops into the South.
"The ground warfare element is a big part of this," said Tack. "I think that the most likely way that would play out would be the fight in the DMZ area," where the US would not try to invade North Korea, but rather defend its position in the South.
Though its air force is small and outdated, North Korean jets would need to be addressed and potentially eliminated.
US special operations forces, after stealthy jets destroy North Korea's air defenses, would parachute in and destroy or deactivate mobile launchers and other offensive equipment.
The US faces a big challenge in trying to hunt down some 200 missile launchers throughout North Korea, some of which have treads to enter very difficult terrain where US recon planes would struggle to spot them.
It would be the work of US special forces to establish themselves at key logistical junctures and observe North Koreans' movements, and then relay that to US air assets.
So how does this all end?
North Korea is neither a house of cards or an impenetrable fortress.
Additionally, the resolve of the North Koreans remains a mystery. North Korea has successfully estimated that the international community is unwilling to intervene as it quietly becomes a nuclear power, but that calculation could become their undoing.
North Korea would likely launch cyber attacks, possibly shutting down parts of the US or allies' power grids, but US Cyber Command would prepare for that.
North Korea would likely destroy some US military installations, lay waste to some small portion of Seoul, and get a handful of missiles fired — but again, US and allied planners would stand ready for that.
In the end, it would be a brutal, bloody conflict, but even the propaganda-saturated North Koreans must know just how disadvantaged they are, according to Tack.
Even after a devastating missile attack, some of North Korea's nuclear stockpile would likely remain hidden. Some element of the remainder of North Koreans could stage a retaliation, but what would be the point?
"If they chose to go the route of conducting a large scale retaliation, they’re inviting a continuation of the conflict that eventually they cannot win … Nobody in this whole game is going to believe that North Korea can win a war against the US, South Korea, and Japan," concluded Tack.
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