The warning comes as the Pentagon begins an extensive review of its nuclear arsenal.
On Sept., 26, 1983, shortly after midnight, the Soviet Oko nuclear early warning system detected five missiles launched from the United States and headed toward Moscow. Stanislav Petrov, a young lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Air Defense Force, was the duty in the Serpukhov-15 bunker that housed the Oko command center. Petrov was the man in charge of alerting the soviets about a nuclear attack, which would trigger a retaliatory strike. He determined that the Oko had likely malfunctioned and the alarm was false. The Americans would not start World War III with a quintet of missiles (risking total annihilation.) It was a daring judgment call. He was, of course, right. As the U.S. prepares to undertake a new nuclear posture review to determine the future direction of the nation’s nuclear weapons, a report from a United Nations research institute warns that the risks of a catastrophic error — like the one that took place that early morning in 1983 — are growing, not shrinking. Next time, there may be no Lt. Col. Petrov in place to avoid a catastrophe.
On Monday, the U.S. Defense Department commenced a new, massive study into its nuclear weapons arsenal, looking at how weapons are kept, how the U.S. would use them in war and whether they present an intimidating enough threat to other countries not to attack us. The review was mandated by President Trump in a Jan 27, memo.
The Pentagon is scheduled to complete the review by the end of the year, an essential step as the military seeks to modernize different aspects of its nuclear deterrent. But a new report from the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, or UNIDR, argues that as the modern battlefield becomes more technologically complex, crowded with more sensors, satellites, drones, and interconnected networks, the risks of another nuclear accident are on the rise.
“A greater reliance on automated systems can lead to misplaced confidence while introducing new points of vulnerability,” says the report. Those new points of vulnerability include so-called “hidden interactions.” That means a sensor or computer program misinterpreting some bit of data and possibly presenting false information in a way that could cause an accident.
The 1987 incident provides a good case in point. Oko satellites mistook a very unusual sunspot on top of a high altitude cloud as a missile strike, hence the false alarm.
Take those satellites, combine them with sensors on drones and data from other sources as well, including new, perhaps unproven technologies to detect missile launches and the picture becomes much more crowded and murky.
While US and North Korean officials have traded verbal missiles in the past few days, China has been noticably quiet. However, that just changed as a prominent Chinese expert told The Nikkei that China likely will halt crude oil exports to North Korea should Pyongyang conduct its sixth nuclear test, signaling a tougher attitude by Beijing toward its rogue neighbor.
North Korea relies almost entirely on China for oil. The Asian giant shipped about 500,000 tons of crude to the North each year until 2013, according to the Chinese customs agency. Bilateral ties cooled that year after Pyongyang carried out its third nuclear test, and exports officially have remained at zero since 2014. But China is believed to still provide crude to North Korea off the books. A complete freeze would impact the North Korean economy.
A nuclear test or the launch of intercontinental ballistic missiles would violate United Nations Security Council resolutions, and China is certain to respond with additional sanctions, said Zhang Liangui, a professor at the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Party School and noted authority on North Korea.
The option to cut off the North’s crude supply will be put on the table, Zhang said, while stressing that the Chinese government will ultimately decide its course of action.
Diplomatic sources have also suggested a halt to crude exports and financial exchanges. The Global Times, an affiliate of Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily, recently published editorials arguing that North Korea’s nuclear experiments must be stopped, and that China should make clear that it will cut off crude exports in response to further tests.
However, even if China says it has stopped all crude exports to North Korea, such a claim cannot not be verified, given that past shipments have not been reflected in official data. Some also argue that it is technologically difficult to completely shut off the pipeline between China and the North. It remains unclear just how serious Beijing has become toward handling Pyongyang’s threat.
According to a report by Korea JoongAng Daily, China appears to be preparing measures in case North Korea tests a nuclear device or performs another provocation, including possibly suspending oil to the regime, and adds that relations between Beijing and Pyongyang appear frostier than ever before.
Additionally, the Korea publication references the Chinese-language Boxun News, which cites a Beijing source, according to whom Chinese President Xi Jinping attempted to send Wu Dawei, China’s special representative for Korean Peninsula affairs, to Pyongyang after his summit with U.S. President Donald Trump, but North Korean leader Kim Jong-un allegedly rejected Wu’s visit.
Boxun adds that it was unclear if North Korea did not conduct a sixth nuclear test last Saturday because of Beijing’s warning not to do so, however it adds that according to “analysts” there’s a high likelihood of a provocation on the 85th anniversary of the founding of the North Korean People’s Army next Tuesday and the days leading up to the South Korean presidential election on May 9.
Citing its Chinese source, Boxun said that “China believes there is the “highest possibility” of a nuclear test on April 25, but “does not leave out the possibility it might take action in early May.”
One assumes the Carl Vinson, wherever it may be in the world currently, will eventually make it to North Korea by then.
Meanwhile, South Korean officials cited by JoongAng Daily confirmed that Wu, China’s top nuclear envoy, during a visit to Seoul last week said he proposed to visit Pyongyang in person to persuade the North to refrain from further provocations but he was spurned.
In its first official comments on Sunday morning’s failed missile launch, South Korea said the latest North Korean provocation threatens the entire world, and warned of a punitive action if it leads to further actions such as a nuclear test or a long-range missile launch.
“North Korea showing a variety of offensive missiles at yesterday’s military parade and daring to fire a ballistic missile today is a show of force that threatens the whole world,” South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “We have to warn again that if this leads to a strategic provocation of a nuclear or ICBM test, the North will face strong punitive measures that it will find hard to endure.”
Shortly after the failed test, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence touched down in South Korea Sunday for his first visit in a five-leg trip to the Asia-Pacific region, being the highest-level official from the Donald Trump administration yet to arrive here amid escalating tensions with the North. The arrival marked Pence’s first-ever visit to the South, and was nine hours after North Korea conducted its fifth ballistic missile test this year earlier in the morning, though it ended in failure.
Pence arrived at the Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi, at 3:30 p.m. but has yet to make any public remarks. A joint statement between him and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, who concurrently serves as acting president, is expected to come this afternoon after the two leaders discuss North Korean issues at Hwang’s office in central Seoul.
“This morning’s provocation from the North is just the latest reminder of the risks each one of you face every day,” Pence told a fellowship of U.S. soldiers and Koreans at a dinner in Seoul.
Amid rising tensions between the U.S. and North Korea, a U.S. aircraft carrier-led strike group has altered plans and headed toward the Korean Peninsula.
The USS Carl Vinson had just been in Busan, South Korea, in mid-March to participate in Foal Eagle, an annual U.S.-South Korea exercise. Afterward, the 6,000-crew warship moved to Singapore and was scheduled to make a port visit to Australia.
Instead, Adm. Harry Harris, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command — which oversees all U.S. forces in the Pacific — instructed the Carl Vinson Strike Group on April 8 to sail north once again.
It is the latest measure taken by the Donald Trump administration to show the world, especially China, that the U.S. strategy toward North Korea has changed. North Korea has recently repeatedly tested ballistic missiles, threatening to test a intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the U.S. Trump is signaling that his administration is not shy to use force to prevent such development.
A mobile naval base, capable of carrying 90 aircraft to the enemy, the aircraft carrier is the Navy’s most visible display of power. Accompanying the Carl Vinson are the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers USS Wayne E. Meyer and USS Michael Murphy, as well as the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Lake Champlain.
Yesterday’s snap deployment of the US THAAD anti-missile system in South Korea has led to significant reverberations among the region, with not only North Korea, but also Russia and China slamming the move.
As reported last night, various equipment including 2 launch pads for U.S. missile defense system known as THAAD arrived in South Korea on Monday and will continue to be brought in, Yonhap News said.”Continued provocative actions by North Korea, to include yesterday’s launch of multiple missiles, only confirm the prudence of our alliance decision last year to deploy THAAD to South Korea,” Adm. Harry Harris, commander, US Pacific Command, said in a news release.
US Secretary of Defense James Mattis and South Korean Defense Secretary Han Min-koo spoke over the phone last week and agreed that THAAD should be deployed “ASAP.”
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer signaled the deployment Monday when he told reporters that the United States is “taking steps to enhance our ability to defend against North Korea’s ballistic missiles, such as through the deployment of a THAAD battery to South Korea.” U.S. defense officials confirmed to NBC News on Monday night that that meant delivery was already under way — not that the United States was simply restating its previous promises to send the system to South Korea sometime in the future.
Update: North Korea warned Monday that U.S.-South Korean military exercises, which it called “the most undisguised nuclear war maneuvers,” are driving the Korean Peninsula and northeast Asia toward “nuclear disaster.” The North Korean ambassador to the United Nations, Ja Song Nam, said in a letter to the U.N. Security Council that the U.S. is using nuclear-propelled aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, nuclear strategic bombers and stealth fighters in the joint exercises that began Wednesday. “It may go over to an actual war,” Ja warned of the military drills, “and, consequently, the situation on the Korean Peninsula is again inching to the brink of a nuclear war.”
“Involved in the drill were Hwasong artillery units of the KPA Strategic Force tasked to strike the bases of the U.S. imperialist aggressor forces in Japan in contingency,” the North’s official KCNA news agency said.
“In the hearts of artillerymen … there was burning desire to mercilessly retaliate against the warmongers going ahead with their joint war exercises,” KCNA said.
“He (Kim) ordered the KPA Strategic Force to keep highly alert as required by the grim situation in which an actual war may break out any time, and get fully ready to promptly move, take positions and strike so that it can open fire to annihilate the enemies.”
The letter was sent a few hours after North Korea fired four banned ballistic missiles. Ja said the main reason North Korea is equipping itself “with nuclear attack capabilities” and strengthening its nuclear deterrent forces is in self-defense against what he called the U.S. “extreme anti-DPRK hostile policy and nuclear threats and blackmails as well as maneuvers to enforce its nuclear weapons.”
North Korea on Monday fired a projectile into the East Sea, with South Korea’s Yonhap News reporting it may have been an intercontinental ballistic missile.
The potential missile test comes as South Korea and the U.S. undertake annual military drills that Pyongyang has called a prelude to an invasion. South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff are analyzing the details of the projectile including the distance and the type, Yonhap said.
The regime in Pyongyang has fired a series of missiles and conducted three nuclear tests since Kim Jong Un came to power. The launch could be a step toward the development of a missile that is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to the continental U.S.
Kim has carried out his tests in defiance of a United Nations ban on weapons development and despite tightening sanctions aimed at pressuring him to give up his nuclear ambitions.
His actions are adding to tensions with key ally China after the death of Kim’s half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, in a Malaysia airport. China, which accounts for most of North Korea’s trade, banned all coal imports from its neighbor following the murder.
After yesterday US officials reported that Iran conducted a nuclear ballistic missile test on Sunday, which some claimed would be another violation of the UN resolution and Obama’s nuclear deal, on Wednesday Iran’s defense minister admitted that the Islamic Republic had indeed tested a new missile, but added the test did not breach Tehran’s nuclear accord with world powers or a U.N. Security Council resolution endorsing the pact.
Iran has test-fired several ballistic missiles since the nuclear deal in 2015, but this is the first during U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration. Trump said in his election campaign that he would stop Iran’s missile program. Furthermore, the confirmed launch comes at a precarious time, with president Trump seemingly looking for excuses to scrap the Iran deal, which could potentially lead to the reestablishment of Iran sanctions and the halt of Iranian oil exports to global markets, taking away as much as 1 million barrels of daily supply.
In the wake of its latest nuclear test, Pyongyang has reportedly increased its uranium enrichment and could have enough radioactive material for roughly 20 bombs by the end of the year.
North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006. While the yield of that first test was estimated to be less than one kiloton, the DPRK has made significant advancements over the last ten years. Last week’s test was the fifth and is believed to have measured 30 kilotons, twice the size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
While the scope of Pyongyang’s nuclear activities is impossible to know for sure, a new assessment by weapons experts estimates that, in addition to the North’s existing plutonium stockpile, increased uranium production could give the DPRK as many as 20 nuclear bombs by the end of the year.
According to the report, posted to 38 North, experts believe that the increased production, coupled with the North’s bountiful uranium deposits, has likely given the country roughly 150 kilograms (330 pounds) of weapons-grade uranium per year, enough to make seven nuclear weapons. The experts also predict that North Korea has the ability to mount these nuclear devices to missiles.