In this image made from video of a news bulletin aired by North Korea's KRT on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2017, leader Kim Jong Un visits the Chemical Material Institute of Academy of Defense Science at an undisclosed location in North Korea. North Korea's state media released photos that appear to show concept diagrams of the missiles hanging on a wall behind leader Kim Jong Un, one showing a diagram for a missile called "Pukguksong-3." Independent journalists were not given access to cover the event depicted in this photo. (KRT via AP Video) In this image made from video of a news bulletin aired by North Korea’s KRT on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2017, leader Kim Jong Un visits the Chemical Material Institute of Academy of Defense Science at an undisclosed location in North Korea. North Korea’s state media released photos that appear to show concept diagrams of the missiles hanging on a wall behind leader Kim Jong Un, one showing a diagram for a missile called “Pukguksong-3.” Independent journalists were not given access to cover the event depicted in this photo. (KRT via AP Video)

Lots of things are happening with North Korea right now and the next month or so could determine how this movie ends. These are the big items.

New ICBM launches by North Korea are thought to be imminent.

Via CBS

South Korea’s Defense Ministry said on Monday that North Korea appeared to be planning another missile launch, possibly of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) to show off its claimed ability to target the United States with nuclear weapons.

Chang Kyung-soo, an official with South Korea’s Defense Ministry, told lawmakers on Monday that Seoul was seeing preparations in the North for an ICBM test, but he didn’t provide details about how officials had reached that assessment. Chang also said the yield from the latest nuclear detonation appeared to be about 50 kilotons, which would mark a “significant increase” from North Korea’s past nuclear tests.

According to South Korean lawmakers, the country’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) informed them in a closed meeting that Pyongyang may carry out another ICBM test around the anniversary of the regime’s foundation on Saturday, or the anniversary of the establishment of the ruling political party, on Oct. 10.

The trolling of China.

A lot of people have asked why the North Koreans popped a nuke so close to the UN Security Council vote condemning North Korea for shooting an IRBM over Japan. The answer seems to be that North Korea is trying bring China into line

Via LA Times:

Experts say the test puts both China and the U.S. in a bind. It occurred just hours before Chinese President Xi Jinping’s introductory speech at the BRICS Summit, a major international conclave in southeast China’s Xiamen city. The forum — attended by several heads of state, including Russian President Vladimir Putin — was Xi’s chance to show China’s growing leadership role in the developing world, and the test was a striking intrusion.

Residents of Chinese cities and towns bordering North Korea reported feeling shock waves from the blast.

“It’s long been suspected that the North Koreans were designing this [nuclear and missile] program not only to keep the Americans out, but also to send signals to the Chinese,” said Robert Kelly, a North Korea expert and professor at Pusan National University in South Korea.

“They don’t want to become a satellite state, like East Germany,” he said. “When the Soviets pulled the plug on East Germany, East Germany disappeared within 11 months. And North Korea just doesn’t want to be that dependent on China.”

Via the New York Times:

It was supposed to be Xi Jinping’s moment to bask in global prestige, as the Chinese president hosted the leaders of some of the world’s most dynamic economies at a summit meeting just weeks before a Communist Party leadership conference.

But just hours before Mr. Xi was set to address the carefully choreographed meeting on Sunday, North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, detonated his sixth nuclear bomb.

Mr. Kim has timed his nuclear tests and missile launches with exquisite precision, apparently trying to create maximum embarrassment for China. And on Sunday, a gathering in southeast China of leaders from Russia, Brazil, India and South Africa, members of the so-called BRICS group, was immediately overshadowed by news of the test, which shook dwellings in China and revived fears of nuclear contamination in the country’s northeast region.

This is not the first time Mr. Kim has chosen a provocative moment to flaunt his country’s weapons. In May, he launched a ballistic missile hours before Mr. Xi spoke at a gathering of world leaders in Beijing assembled to discuss China’s signature trillion dollar One Belt, One Road project.

The confluence of North Korea’s nuclear testing and Mr. Xi’s important public appearances is not a coincidence, analysts said. It is intended to show that Mr. Kim, the leader of a small, rogue neighboring state, can diminish Mr. Xi’s power and prestige as president of China, they said. In fact, some analysts contended that the latest test may have been primarily aimed at pressuring Mr. Xi, not President Trump.

North Korea Launches a Missile, Its First Test After an Election in the South MAY 13, 2017
“Kim knows that Xi has the real power to affect the calculus in Washington,” said Peter Hayes, the director of the Nautilus Institute, a research group that specializes in North Korea. “He’s putting pressure on China to say to Trump: ‘You have to sit down with Kim Jong-un.’”

We make a mistake in considering the Chinese government to be a monolith. It is no more a unified, love-fest than our own. Xi’s power depends upon being able to control competing factions. We know this is difficult in regards to North Korea because the Chinese government has shown time an again that the internal pain of cracking down on North Korea is not worth the effort. While some parts of the Chinese government would like to calm things down, it would be silly to think that is the view across government. There are no doubt power centers that see advantages to having the US fixated on North Korea and keeping the pot stirring. This creates a wedge between the US and its regional allies because they may not be certain we will be there in the future and China will be.

But my assessment would be very much in line with these two article. The timing of the explosion indicates it was designed to get the attention of China and not merely to up the ante with the United States.

Nikki Haley being Nikki Haley.

The UN Security Council met this morning and our ambassador, Nikki Haley, was in great form. This is the whole video. It is worth the watching:

Some highlights.

“Enough is enough. We have taken an incremental approach, and despite the best of intentions, it has not worked.”

“War is never something the Unites States wants — we don’t want it now. But our country’s patience is not unlimited. We will defend our allies and our territory.”

“We have kicked the can down the road long enough. There is no more road left.”

This exchange with China, via CNN

Liu touted a proposal from China and Russia of a “suspension for suspension,” also known as “freeze for freeze,” where Pyongyang would freeze its nuclear program in exchange for the US and South Korea suspending joint military exercises.

But before he spoke, Haley called such a proposal “insulting.”

“The idea that some have suggested a so-called ‘freeze for freeze’ is insulting,” she said. “When a rogue regime has a nuclear weapon and an ICBM pointed at you, you do not take steps to lower your guard. No one would do that. We certainly won’t.”

James Mattis is the guy the world is looking to for clarity.

Yesterday, I posted on James Mattis’s brief statement at the conclusion of a national security meeting on North Korea. What was interesting was that Mattis, rather than Tillerson or even McMaster, got the nod to make the official statement. Today, Foreign Policy makes a great case for how Mattis succinctly brings together the administration’s North Korea policy.

We have become accustomed to Trump’s remarks being contradicted by members of his administration, or by his own subsequent statements. But not so with Mattis, who is one of the most highly respected military officers of his generation. When Mattis speaks, you listen to each word. And the two key words in Mattis’ statement were “will be”: Not “might be”, but will be. That tells us that if North Korea makes a threat that meets the administration’s definition, the next step is a U.S. strike, rather than more diplomacy.

Before going on, this is not surprising. There were early warnings that Trump’s tweets were a boon to foreign intelligence services and now it seems that they, like us, have come to the conclusion that crazy is baked into a lot of Trump’s tweets and if take them literally you are wasting your time.

Third, scope. Trump said on August 8 that threats “to the United States” would trigger a U.S. military response. Since then, North Korea has threatened Guam, an unincorporated U.S. territory, and flown a missile over Japan, but has been careful not to cross Trump’s line by threatening the U.S. mainland directly. Mattis’ statement makes clear that now any threat to Guam or U.S. allies like South Korea or Japan will trigger a U.S. strike. So the bar for what will trigger a U.S. strike has been lowered.

Fourth, detail. Trump’s “fire and fury like the world has never seen” can be interpreted in many ways, if indeed it is even understood as a statement of policy, not just rhetoric. Conversely, from Mattis’ precise statement, we can now deduct the outline of what a U.S. strike would look like.

Thus, Mattis asserted that “we are not looking to the total annihilation of a country, namely, North Korea”. Translation: a U.S. strike would target North Korean nuclear and military assets, rather than destroy the whole country, and is unlikely to involve any U.S. invasion; but such a U.S. strike would nonetheless be massive and sudden, and without further warning, if North Korea were to make the threat in question.

In sum, it seems clear that Mattis wants a peaceful solution as a primary objective, but is ready to strike North Korean nuclear and military installations if Pyongyang makes any further threat to the U.S. or its allies.

However, Mattis was careful to leave a safety valve in the language he used. His statement leaves the Trump administration room to maneuver in the definition of the term “any threat”. Thus, such language could be interpreted by the administration to either include or exclude merely verbal threats, or indeed, any other type.

But Mattis’ use of the term “any threat” may have been designed to anticipate a justification to use force in self-defense under Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, which is understood to require an imminent threat of “armed attack” against which action can then be taken in self-defense, if that attack has not yet begun. Note that action taken under Article 51 does not require prior U.N. Security Council approval.

Economic punishment for North Korea’s enablers is on the way.

We can bet that China and Russia will not sign onto any extra sanctions based on this weekend’s nuke and todays Security Council meeting. They’ve basically said as much. The position of both those governments is that the US should return to bargaining with North Korea without pre-conditions. No one knows what that bargaining will accomplish other than letting Kim Jong Un continue to do what he’s doing and to make him seem stronger to South Korea and Japan. Yesterday, Trump tweeted this

Like any other Trump tweet there is a lot of stupid stuff being said about it. Giving nations who are trading a choice between canceling North Korean trade arrangements and losing access to the US market is an imminently reasonable course of action.

In regards to China, what we will probably see is one or more large Chinese banks slapped with some form of sanctions over their dealings with North Korea. China has been afraid this might happen, but not so afraid as to take any action against North Korea.

This will get attention in Beijing because the major banks are all state owned enterprises.

I’ve posted before about war having its own logic. The next steps, basically shuttering North Korea’s entire trade program, is going to be interesting. China will either have to blatantly break UN sanctions to keep the Pyongyang regime afloat or Kim Jong Un will be left with some very difficult choices that we will have to react to.

UPDATE: The U.S. and South Korea ink missile deal.