When North Korea shot off its first-ever intercontinental ballistic missile in the early morning hours of July 4, US military and intelligence personnel watched leader Kim Jong Un smoke cigarettes and stroll around the launchpad for a full 70 minutes, a source told The Diplomat's Ankit Panda.
The US knew North Korea was in the final stages of building an ICBM after a recent rocket engine test. The US knew North Korea liked to test missiles on Independence Day to send a message. The US knew this missile was different than any they had seen before, and the US knew it could destroy it with a variety of percision-fire platforms in the region. Importantly, the US had Kim Jong Un in their crosshairs for over and hour, and they did nothing.
Those facts speaks volumes about the security climate in the Koreas.
While it's "fairly standard that the US didn't strike the missile ahead of the launch" Rodger Baker, the lead analyst of Asia Pacific and South Asia at Stratfor, a geopolitical consulting firm, told Business Insider, "the unusual aspect may be saying they were watching, or at least allowing that to leak."
Video of the launch clearly shows Kim on site, sometimes feet away from the missile. The next day, the US and South Korea put on a blistering display of precision-guided firepower that proves they could have both killed Kim and stopped the launch in its tracks, but they chose not to.
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By letting North Korea know they watched Kim out in the open as he prepared for one of his country's most provocative ever tests missile tests, Baker says the US may have sent two powerful messages.
"They had a very easy shot at killing Kim and didn't," said Baker. This fits with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's statement that the US wants "to bring Kim Jong Un to his senses, not his knees," or that regime change is not the US's ultimate goal.
But regime security is the whole reason why North Korea wants long-range nuclear weapons in the first place.
If the US demonstrates it's not intent on killing Kim, that could communicate that there's "no need to continue the [missile] program," according to Baker.
Secondly, "if the program is continued, we can strike it and Kim," said Baker. Though North Korea varies and tries to hide their launch points, the US tracks them vigorously and footage of the launches always show Kim nearby.
Perhaps rather than kill Kim and trigger a North Korean response, which could be massive, the US elected to signal to him that the best path to regime security would be to stay indoors and not play around near dangerous rocket engines, which have a habit of blowing up.
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