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March 22, 2018
Notes from the Pentagon

U.S. commander on North Korea threat
The commander of U.S. forces in South Korea provided a detailed look at the increasing threat posed by the North Korean regime of Kim Jong-un last week.

Army Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, who also heads the United Nations Command and Combined Forces Command, told a Senate committee that U.S. forces on the peninsula have increased military readiness with additional munitions, including deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) — despite intense pressure from China to block the powerful missile defense system.

Robust military exercises also were held last year, and in November three aircraft carrier battle groups conducted a rare tri-carrier strike exercise in a show of force. B-1 bomber flights and live firings of the Army Tactical Missile System, known as ATACMS, also were carried out as part of U.S.-South Korea joint efforts to deter continued threats from North Korea.

“North Korea remains a significant threat to security and stability in Northeast Asia and beyond,” Gen. Brooks told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “The past year was marked by continued North Korean provocations, threats and actions that have raised tensions on the Korean Peninsula and across the globe.”

Gen. Brooks stated that the Kim regime “continues to hold security and stability in the Indo-Pacific at risk with its conventional arms and further development of WMD and other asymmetric capabilities capable of posing a direct threat to the U.S. homeland.”

The main concern is the expanding range of the regime’s ballistic missiles that pose threats to South Korea’s population and to 150,000 Americans who live within range of North Korean artillery in the northern part of South Korea.

“North Korea has deployed at least three artillery systems capable of ranging targets in the [greater Seoul metropolitan area] with virtually no warning,” Gen. Brooks said. The guns are capable of producing significant casualties in any renewed Korean conflict.

Gen. Brooks made clear that any war would be bloody. “North Korea also possesses the world’s largest special operations force, the fourth-largest standing army and a long-standing chemical weapons program with the capability to produce nerve, blister, blood and choking agents,” he said, adding that the chemicals could be fired from both missiles and artillery shells.

North Korea also is continuing to expand its formidable cyberwarfare capabilities. Gen. Brooks said Pyongyang was behind a major “ransomware” attack in May that attacked computers worldwide.

“This came on the heels of cyberoperations that allowed the country to steal more than $80 million from international financial systems in 2016,” he said, noting that North Korea has more than 6,000 hackers whose “improving capabilities provide the regime a financial pipeline to support its weapons programs and a means to collect sensitive information from other parties and disrupt infrastructure in other countries.”

The year ended with the Nov. 29 launch of a long-range missile that achieved the highest altitude and longest flight time for any North Korean missile.

Since the missile launch, North Korea has backed off further provocations, Gen. Brooks said, something that is likely the result of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign on the regime. The lull also coincided with North-South cooperation in the Winter Olympics.

“The steady application of focused international pressure may be having an effect, given the recent signs of rapprochement between North and South Korea,” Gen. Brooks said.

He made no mention of the announced plans to hold a summit between President Trump and Mr. Kim.

South Korea is continuing to modernize its military forces with $26 billion in U.S. arms purchases, including intelligence systems, missile defenses and Global Hawk drone aircraft, along with Apache helicopters and F-35 fighters.

Regarding China’s backing for North Korea, Gen. Brooks said the traditional closeness of the two communist states appears strained. Chinese economic retaliation against South Korea for its THAAD deployment cost Seoul an estimated $6.5 billion.

The four-star general said Mr. Kim’s strategy is to fracture ties among key regional actors through provocative actions and strategic messaging.

The most worrisome North Korean action involved three tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles and a sixth underground nuclear test. Sixteen other missiles also were test-fired.

“North Korea’s missiles threaten not only South Korea, but an increasing number of our allies,” Gen. Brooks said. “Pyongyang overtly threatens the safety of citizens in Australia, Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States, specifically calling out Guam, and South Korea,” he stated.

The general also blamed the Kim regime for using a chemical weapon to assassinate the half brother of Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-nam, in Malaysia.

Gen. Brooks provided the details in written testimony submitted last week to the Senate Armed Services Committee. He was unable to appear in person before the committee in order to remain in South Korea amid concerns about North Korea.

Outgoing Pacific Command commander Adm. Harry Harris warned during the same Senate committee hearing that published Gen. Brooks‘ testimony that China poses a three-pronged threat to the region while engaging in regional “aggression.”

“China is leveraging military modernization, influence operations and predatory economics to coerce neighboring countries to reorder the Indo-Pacific to their advantage,” Adm. Harris testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 15.

“While some view China’s actions in the East and South China seas as opportunistic, I do not,” he said. “I view them as coordinated, methodical and strategic, using their military and economic power to erode the free and open international order.”

The four-star admiral, who has been nominated by President Trump to be U.S. ambassador to Australia, added that “China’s aggression in the South China Sea moves along unabated.”

Adm. Harris warned in blunt testimony that China’s military buildup is threatening regional stability and that Beijing is seeking to expand its power globally, not just in the Asia-Pacific region.

“China’s impressive military buildup could soon challenge the United States across almost every domain,” he said. Key elements include improved missiles, advanced jet fighters, and expanding naval forces and bases overseas.

China’s military is “heavily investing” in advanced military hardware, including hypersonic missiles, advanced space and cyber capabilities, and artificial intelligence.

“If the U.S. does not keep pace, PACOM will struggle to compete with the People’s Liberation Army on future battlefields,” Adm. Harris said.

“China’s ongoing military buildup, advancement and modernization are core elements of their strategy to supplant the United States as a security partner of choice for countries in the Indo-Pacific,” he added.

Pressuring North Korea remains a central focus of Trump administration national security policies, but Iran also is coming under intense American pressure from the Treasury Department.

Treasury officials announced this week that the Office of Foreign Assets Control is using its licensing power to improve access by the Iranian people to the internet in a bid to counteract government repression.

“The Iranian regime has demonstrated contempt for fundamental freedoms such as expression, assembly, and association,” Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin said in a statement Monday. “By restricting access to satellite services, blocking access to social media sites and apps, and imposing other internet restrictions, the regime seeks to impede the Iranian people from freely communicating with the outside world and with each other.

“The Iranian people should be free to seek, receive and impart information as they see fit,” he said. “The United States is committed to empowering Iranians to engage with the world, express themselves, and hold the Iranian regime accountable for its actions.”

The Office of Foreign Assets Control issued two Iran-related general licenses that authorized hardware, software and services for personal communications over the internet, including instant messaging, chat and email, and social networking software and services, such as mobile apps, anti-censorship tools and anti-tracking software.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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