DN - Defence Notes

Analysis: Where could Trump strike North Korea?

21st April 2017 - 09:04 GMT | by Wendell Minnick in Taipei


A virtual 'hit list' of viable targets the US military could strike if it ever decided to employ force against North Korea, which Shephard has gathered from leading experts and former US military officers, reveals some of the options open to the Pentagon.

The top target is the Musudan-ri missile test site on North Korea's northeast coastline. The facility is elaborate and considered North Korea's number one ballistic-missile launch facility without equal.

Facilities along the east coast, such as Musudan-ri, are high-probability targets because these are used to launch missiles over Japan into the Pacific Ocean, according to C. Kenneth Quinones, a retired diplomat that once lived at the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Centre as part of a US team to monitor North Korea's adherence to the 1994 Agreed Framework.

Musudan-ri covers 9km² with one launch pad/tower, a missile assembly building, range control facility and five buildings that include a static engine test structure.

Another source who spoke on condition of anonymity said that, due to the rotation of the earth, the east coast launch facility gives Pyongyang an extra boost as it attempts to improve its circular error probability (CEP) and the range of its intercontinental nuclear ballistic missiles.

Attempts to knock out North Korean missile facilities on the west coast would be more difficult now that the Chinese navy controls the northern extension of the Yellow Sea into the 'Korea Bay' area off North Korea's west coast. This would make hitting the Sohae 'satellite' launch station near the border with China difficult.

Yet there are plenty of other targets along the east coast to keep the US military busy.

A 'hit list' of potential targets, suggested by various sources, include the Wonsan Naval Base, which serves as the East Fleet Headquarters and home to submarines capable of launching missiles, and the Punggye-ri nuclear test site, which is North Korea's primary underground nuclear-weapon test site.

One tempting target, due to the tight cluster of six chemical facilities, is only 70km north of the Wonson Navy Base in Hanggu district.

However, facilities dealing with chemical weapon production, such as Hamheung University of Chemical Industry and similar research facilities, would most likely be spared due to fears of collateral damage caused by the release of toxic gas that could float over Japan.

The unanswered question is whether the US could launch a 'limited strike to make a point and move on, or is it a precursor to something more substantial?', said Sean O'Connor, a former US Air Force imagery intelligence analyst.

If an attack is something much larger, then North Korea's S-200 air defence missile batteries and radar facilities must be destroyed early in the campaign. Annihilating the MiG-29 fighter regiment at Sunchon Air Base in the northeast would be another one.

A US military strike on North Korea appears unlikely until after April. The calendar is full for the last week of April with China's navy celebrating its 68th anniversary on 23 April. China is also expected to launch its first home-built aircraft carrier as part of the celebration at Dalian Shipyard near North Korea's border.

To further complicate the week, North Korea will celebrate the 85th anniversary of the founding of the Korean People's Army on 25 April, and the possibility of an underground nuclear test or even a missile launch to celebrate the occasion is possible.

A US Navy strike group, led by the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier, is not expected to arrive in the area until at least the middle of next week.

Despite fears that even a limited strike on North Korea's nuclear capabilities would lead to a second Korean War, there are those who argue that the case has already been made to take some kind of action.

For one, North Korea's president, Kim Jong-un, has created the case for casus belli by threatening to strike the US with nuclear weapons, as well as Japan, said a former senior US naval source.

'Any actions have to support policy and strategy outcomes and, in this case, we don't have forever if we are to forestall a seemingly credible threat of a nuclear medium/intermediate-range ballistic missile on Japan… [There must be] either a trigger point of his next provocation, or it starts now,' the source said.

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