Kim Jong Un may often threaten the United States and Japan with nuclear annihilation but the timing of his latest missile test could reveal his fear of his own demise.
North Korea launched the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile on Nov, 29. The missile flew for 53 minutes, reached 2800 miles high—over ten times the orbit height of the International Space Station—and came down 130 miles off the coast of Japan.
The provocative launch marks a new era in the communist country’s ballistic missile program. The new, larger missile, is credibly able to carry a nuclear warhead and can reach Washington D.C. and much of the U.S. mainland. According to North Korea, the missile completes the regime’s “state nuclear force.”
But despite Kim’s frequent warnings to reduce the U.S. to ash and sink Japan into the ocean, he waited until the United States dramatically reduced its military posture in the region before launching the missile.
The Hwasong-15 was launched two days after the USS Theodore Roosevelt nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and its strike group of war ships and aircraft left Pacific Command.
Pacific Command is responsible for the military assets and personnel that would deploy to deal with war on the Korean Peninsula.
Moreover, the Roosevelt’s departure was preceded days earlier by the departure of the USS Nimitz and its strike group. On Nov 25, the Nimitz arrived in Hawaii.
While still under Pacific Command, the Nimitz is now in the 3rd Fleet’s Area of Responsibility, which does not include the Korean Peninsula.
At its maximum speed of 31.5 knots (36.2 mph), it would take the Nimitz five days to reach North Korea, well outside the range for an immediate attack.
The departure of the two aircraft carriers and their strike groups significantly reduced U.S. military assets in the region.
The Roosevelt’s strike group includes a guided missile cruiser, three guided-missile destroyers, and Carrier Air Wing 17, which is made up of three squadrons of strike fighter jets, a marine fighter attack squadron, an electronic attack squadron, two combat helicopter squadrons, and more.
The Nimitz strike group is similarly equipped. Between them, they brought hundreds of aircraft and an incredible amount of firepower to the Western Pacific, a threat that even North Korea’s supreme leader could not overlook.
Several of the strike groups ships were also Aegis equipped, meaning they had the missiles and radar assets required to bring down an intermediate range ballistic missile.
The arrival of the two ships seemed timed to make a statement to the Kim regime.
It was always planned that the ships would both leave 7th fleet, whose area of responsibility includes the Korean Peninsula. The Roosevelt was travelling to the 5th Fleet, where it would come under Central Command and replace the Nimitz in the ongoing battle against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
The Nimitz, meanwhile, would return home after its deployment to the Middle East.
But for a month, both ships lingered in the Western Pacific, taking part in exercises and drills meant to hone U.S., South Korean, and Japanese forces.
The 7th Fleet is now left with just one aircraft carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan, and its associated strike group, though the fleet also includes submarines, ships, and aircraft outside the carrier group. Pacific Command also oversees U.S. Forces Japan, and U.S. Forces Korea and the army bases, naval ports, and air force bases throughout the region.
There is, however, a unique threat posed by additional naval forces on the Korean Peninsula, where amphibious assault is one of the most crucial tactics needed to rapidly invade North Korea.
Kim may have revealed a new missile with Wednesday’s launch, but he may also have revealed that he is not beyond being intimidated by a fuller display of U.S. naval power.