1. ITV Report

North Korea: How big a danger does the regime pose?

Kim Jong-un is North Korea's supreme hereditary leader. Credit: AP
  • By ITV News Correspondent Angus Walker

Just how dangerous is North Korea?

In April 2012, an ITV News team was invited to Pyongyang on a rare foreign media trip inside North Korea to witness the launch of a rocket.

A satellite launch was the official reason given by the regime.

But western intelligence was watching very carefully for signs that this was, in fact, a missile test that would take Pyongyang one step closer to the development of an ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile).

Was this the test of warhead technology which would allow a North Korean missile to re-enter the atmosphere on a flight to a target on the US mainland?

North Korea's aim to is to become a nuclear-armed nation. Credit: AP

Our colleagues from NBC News had brought along former NASA mission control operator James Oberg.

While chatting to him, he memorably described North Korea’s ability to launch a nuclear warhead as a “terrifying golf ball of death” because he reckoned that the rocket, in his judgement, would only be able to lift and propel a warhead containing something the weight and size of a golf ball.

The nuclear devices that had been detonated over the years deep underground would be the “size of basketball courts”, he estimated, continuing the sporting theme.

He reckoned they didn’t yet have the capability to miniaturise a nuclear bomb that would fit inside a war head.

This year we’ve seen a photo apparently showing Kim Jung-un standing in front of a metal sphere with what looks like a war head behind him.

The photo could be faked of course - the North Koreans are prone to using a bit of Photoshopping to enhance their military hardware.

The message they’re trying to send is clear though - and it’s been reported that US intelligence now believes the North Koreans have made the breakthrough that makes the regime a real WMD threat.

The hermit state has fired its first intercontinental ballistic missile. Credit: AP

Back to 2012, and a large room, an auditorium, inside one of Pyongyang’s two luxuriously decorated showcase hotels reserved for foreign visitors, had been provided for the foreign media. A large screen would relay live pictures of the launch.

In front of us sat a handful of grim-faced North Korean officials who would be available for interview after the successful launch.

Ready to praise the power and strength of the North Korean regime and its triumphant leader Kim, then only a few months into his ‘reign’ after the death of his father Kim Jong-il in December 2011.

The screen remained blank as the appointed launch time came and went.

News came into the room via foreign websites that North Korea's rocket had splintered and crashed into the sea minutes after it was launched.

Debris from the rocket which exploded in the air and broke into around 20 pieces had crashed between 190km and 210km off Kunsan, a city on the west coast of South Korea.

The long-range Unha-3 rocket had been fired in the face of international condemnation from the west coast launch pad in the hamlet of Tongchang-ri.

Kim Il-sung (l), Kim Jong-il (c) and Kim Jong-un (r). Credit: AP

The United Nations Security Council denounced the attempt as 'deplorable'.

The North Korean officials squirmed in their seats as we crowded round not getting any answers about the failure of the launch.

After a few minutes they slowly stood up and filed out of the room. Their faces said it all.

We wondered about the fate of the rocket scientists and army commanders who would have to face the wrath of the supreme leader.

At this stage, western analysts took the failure as yet more evidence that North Korea was still a long way off from possessing an ICBM or a suitable warhead.

Newsreader Ri Chun Hee is usually the person who makes major North Korean announcements. Credit: AP

Now, just five years later, the rapid advance of missile technology within the reclusive state has been noted.

Last month, after a far more successful long range test, a former UK ambassador to Pyongyang told me: “The gap between (successful) launches is becoming less which indicates an increasing confidence as well as improving technology.

"I do think this latest launch is a worrying development.”

They were also curious about North Korea’s ability to make such apparent strides in refining the technology required to launch an ICBM.

“I think another interesting question is where these technological advances are coming from," he continued.

"Although their abilities were always difficult to judge I am doubtful they could make what appears to be rapid progress without external help.”

North Korea have launched their biggest nuclear test yet. Credit: AP
  • So, who could be helping?

China, an established nuclear power must be a suspect.

The relationship between Beijing and the Kim regime is not always easy.

Once described to me by a diplomat as like that of a “toddler and parent”.

Occasionally the toddler throws a tantrum and the parent must step in to admonish the child but there’s always that un-breakable family link.

China doesn’t want to allow a one-party communist state to fail, that would make China’s leaders look vulnerable as well.

China doesn’t want a unified Korea with the prospect of US and South Korean troops on its border. China doesn’t want floods of North Korean refugees.

China would like North Korea to, at some point, adopt the economic liberalisation that preserved Chinese Communist Party control of the country after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

China also benefits most from the coal and mineral exports from North Korea.

I met a drunken Chinese businessman, in the bar of the other luxurious Pyongyang hotel, on my first trip to North Korea in 2010, who was buying numerous bottles of French Cognac, at 300 dollars a pop, he slurred that he was celebrating a coal deal he’d just struck.

China keeps North Korea alive. Together, Chinese money and political patronage is the life support system for the impoverished country and China wants to have complete control of whatever it can extract in return from the mines of the North Korean mountains.

North Korea is surrounded by three of the world’s largest economies: China, Japan and South Korea.

Perhaps the greatest deterrent to war is that it would simply be very bad for business.

Donald Trump has been engaged in a war of words with Kim. Credit: AP

Back to the current nuclear stand-off, and there’s also little doubt that using North Korea to yank Donald Trump’s lead works well for China.

Allowing Beijing to analyse his responses, distract him from Chinese ambitions in the region, expansion of its military bases perched on disputed reefs and islands in the South China Sea for example.

Another crisis also allows China to play its favourite role as peace broker.

Note that Chinese President Xi Jinping urged Mr Trump to avoid "words and actions" that worsen tensions, during a phone call on Friday night.

Domestically, the Chinese leadership can then portray itself as having some control over Donald Trump.

It’s an established pattern; North Korea provokes the US, US responds with threats and China asks everyone to cool it - despite North Korea being sponsored by China itself.

The “fire and fury” comment and the “locked and loaded” tweet from President Trump in recent days are absolute gifts for North Korea.

What’s often lost is an appreciation of the view from North Korea itself.

A country where people are closed off and from birth the state run propaganda provides repeated warnings of imminent US aggression.

The regime justifies its strong grip on power because it has convinced its captive population that only the Kim dynasty can protect the people from those US imperialists who would invade in seconds if the regime was weaker.

North Korea has one of the largest armies in the world. Credit: AP

Trump has strayed into using the sort of language much loved by the North Korean state media itself, which often fires back with threats of “a sea of fire” and “a tragic doom” if North Korea is attacked.

In fact, the entire Korean peninsular has been “locked and loaded” ever since the 1950s.

After all, the Korean war has never officially ended. Troops and weapons are crowded along the DMZ, the most fortified and militarised border in the world.

US officials have told me that during their table top war games an attack by North Korea would result in the destruction of North Korean forces in less than a day.

Much of their weaponry is old, some artillery dating back to the Korean war. It would ‘all be over by lunch time’ is how they put it.

Even China’s defence budget is only around a third of amount the US spends on arming itself.

It’s not a fair contest even if China was to join in. Given that North Korea and China are obsessed by their own preservation, of maintaining their own totalitarian control over their countries.

An actual conflict is suicidal.

So, the cycles of threat and counter threat continue as they have done for decades.

This time, the only difference is the technology, Trump and Twitter.