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May 11, 2017
Notes from the Pentagon

North Korea travel warnings issued to Americans
The State Department issued reports this week warning Americans not to travel to North Korea, where the regime in Pyongyang is stepping up detentions and military provocations.

An internal State Department security report says 16 Americans have been detained on trumped-up subversion charges in the past decade. The report also said North Korea is using military provocations to bolster the authority of supreme leader Kim Jong-un and perpetuate his rule.

The report by the Overseas Security Advisory Council surveyed U.S. businesses in South Korea and found that 75 percent are most concerned that naval clashes or confrontations in the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas could trigger a war.

“Bilateral tensions remain relatively high and are marked by continued threats and limited military action,” according to the report.

Despite “potentially catastrophic consequences of all-out military confrontation,” most day-to-day operations are largely unaffected by periodic provocations, it noted.

Americans in North Korea “are at serious risk of arrest and long-term detention under North Korea’s system of law enforcement,” the travel warning states.

The notice followed the arrest on Saturday of American Kim Hak-song, detained for what state media called “hostile acts.”

The arrest came two weeks after another American, Tony Kim, was arrested. Both worked at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. They are among four Americans currently imprisoned in North Korea.

The report also says hopes that dictator Kim Jong-un would be more moderate than his father, the late Kim Jong-il, have been dashed by Mr. Kim’s continued development of nuclear arms and missiles in violation of United Nations sanctions.

Kim Jong-un, unlike his father, has said South Korea and the United States pose imminent threats to North Korea and that a nuclear weapons arsenal is the only way of securing the country.

“By framing tensions in such existential terms, North Korea may be perpetuating a narrative in which it is the sole guarantor of security in order to shore up domestic legitimacy,” the report said. Limited military action and fiery rhetoric are also used to win political and economic concessions, such as financial aid, security guarantees and help with energy and development programs.

The ultimate concession Pyongyang seeks is the unlikely goal of international acceptance of its nuclear arms programs and recognition as a nuclear state.

The report also says North Korea could intentionally ratchet up provocations with the goal of drawing in U.S. involvement as a way to divide Washington from regional states.

“Though seemingly counterintuitive, the objective of such a long-term strategy would be the gravitation of South Korea toward North Korea and a reunification of the Korean Peninsula, ostensibly on North Korean terms,” the report said.

The report was written before the election this week of Moon Jae-in as South Korea’s next president. The liberal Mr. Moon is expected to adopt more conciliatory policies toward North Korea.

Mr. Moon’s new chief of staff is Im Jong-seok, a former leftist student activist who was jailed for visiting North Korea in 1989.

Survival of the Kim dynasty, however, remains Pyongyang’s pre-eminent concern, the report says. “With that in mind, the idea of unrestrained military action by the North is difficult to imagine, as it would almost certainly trigger an immediate reprisal of overwhelming force,” the report said.

The report then details some of North Korea’s military forces, including its nuclear weapons developed with five underground tests that demonstrated increasingly destructive capability. Another nuclear test could be carried out in the future.

The report said North Korea’s missile development is moving at “an unprecedented rate,” with 20 test launches last year.

The Air Force directed the landing in Florida on Sunday of its secret space drone, known as the X-37B, which stayed in space for a record 718 days.

The unpiloted 29-foot-long-wing space drone is shaped like a mini space shuttle. It landed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, with a sonic boom heard for miles around the site.

The official role for the X-37B was outlined in the vague statement from the Air Force upon the spacecraft’s return, noting “the X-37 program performs risk reduction, experimentation and concept of operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies.”

The only clue to its military applications is the program manager, the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, an acquisition unit with the mission of expediting deployment of combat support systems and weapons.

The drone spacecraft will be a central component of the Air Force’s effort to improve what is called space situational awareness — intelligence on threats in space that include killer satellites and floating debris.

The X-37 likely could be used for other strategic missions, including anti-satellite warfare in a bid to deter the growing anti-satellite weapons being developed by China and Russia. Strategic Command commander Gen. John Hyten, a space warfare expert, is a major supporter of the X-37B program and is said to be closely monitoring its development.

In September, Gen. Hyten testified to Congress that both China and Russia are rapidly building space warfare capabilities.

“The Department of Defense has aggressively moved out to develop responses to the threats that we see coming from China and Russia,” the four-star general told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “I believe it’s essential that we go faster in our responses.”

The general’s concerns are said to be based on recent intelligence indicating advances in space threats to U.S. satellites — used for communications, targeting and navigation.

Michael J. Listner, a space affairs expert, said the X-37B’s missions are many and varied, including use as a test bed for technologies for propulsion, sensors and materials.

The long space missions likely are used to see how the design and materials hold up under the rigors of spaceflight and how soon the craft can be readied for a next flight.

“It is the classified nature of the X-37 project that draws the most attention and includes theories involving a test of a space weapon, the testing of the X-37 as an ASAT and even a satellite-inspection capability,” said Mr. Listner, head of Space Law and Policy Solutions.

Another possible X-37B mission: deception.

“The main purpose of the X-37 may be to keep Chinese military intelligence officials guessing what its mission is, since they will have to respond to everything it might be,” he said.

Yemen continues to be one of the world’s hot spots, with Iranian-backed rebels seeking to take over the war-torn state on the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula.

The Saudi navy announced Tuesday that Houthi rebels have placed additional floating anti-ship mines along the strategic waters of the Red Sea, threatening shipping in the region.

In March, a Yemeni coast guard ship was hit by a mine near the port of Mokha, located 25 miles north of the strategic chokepoint of the strait of Bab al-Mandeb, the online news site The Maritime Executive reported.

The State Department issued a travel warning Wednesday for Yemen about the ongoing conflict and terrorist threats.

“We urge U.S. citizens currently living in Yemen to depart as soon as they are able to safely do so,” the warning said, noting the expansion of activities by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Vessels transiting the waters of the Red Sea, the Bab el-Mandeb strait and the Gulf of Aden also should be alert to threats that include missiles, projectiles and waterborne improvised explosive devices.

Defense officials have said Iran has supplied weapons to Houthi rebels, including remotely piloted explosive boats.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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