Since I like to think of “risk” in rate-of-change terms (is the probability rising or falling?), I thought this was a timely risk management note, given the Trump Transition Team's edict for all Obama-appointees to vacate their offices by 12:01 Friday.
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South Korean news agencies are reporting military officials' comments that North Korea has built and loaded two missiles, apparently ICBM prototypes, aboard mobile launchers in preparation for test firing in the very near future. In his New Year's address, North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, stated that his nation had reached the "final stages" of ICBM development to which President-elect Trump tweeted "never happen."
This year's provocation could occur at any time and will almost certainly occur no later than March, the date of Exercise Key Resolve, the annual joint US-South Korean test of US Pacific Command warplans to defend the peninsula against North Korean attack.
The North Korean activity supports a long standing pattern of that nation seeking to improve its negotiating position through periodic provocative actions to include nuclear tests, ballistic missile firings and aggressive naval actions. This year's anticipated provocation is particularly worthy of attention as it comes just as South Korea is recovering from the turmoil of the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye and as the US is undergoing a very slow-to-develop transition to the Trump administration.
While North Korea has previously launched more than 20 intermediate-range ballistic missile tests, a clear threat to Japan, it has yet to demonstrate true intercontinental capability of the 3000 NM or more that would directly threaten the US. US officials believe that the North Koreans are at least three to five years from a true ICBM operational capability, but there is no question of their intent nor that their speed of technological development has surprised US intelligence in the past. Test launches of ballistic missiles from North Korean submarines over the past year, while not wholly successful, are particularly worrisome as have been North Korean efforts to weaponize its nascent nuclear capability.
While the immediate North Korean physical threat to the US is currently limited, the Trump Administration is vulnerable to serious policy missteps at this juncture. While General James Mattis is a certainty for confirmation on Friday after the inauguration, he will be the only Senate-confirmed Trump appointee in the Pentagon for some time. To date, President-elect Trump's transition team has only announced 26 nominees of approximately 625 key policy posts. SecDef-designate Mattis has managed to get four exceptions to the transition team's edict for all Obama-appointees to vacate their offices by 12:01 Friday: DepSecDef Work, UnderSec AF Disbrow, AsstSecNav Stackley and AsstSec Army Speer will be allowed to stay. Recognizing the risk of empty desks, the Trump transition team has also announced that it would insert "beachhead teams" of political appointees, who will not require Senate confirmation, into some offices.