The United States has ramped up aerial reconnaissance efforts around North Korea, in anticipation of a year end deadline to come to terms on denuclearization or face a North Korean “Christmas gift.”
U.S. military officials have considered the “Christmas gift” comments, made by North Korean diplomat Ri Thae Song, as a threat of new nuclear and ballistic missile tests if the U.S. does not meet it’s conditions for nuclear negotiations. According to TheDrive, U.S. Air Force General Charles Brown, the head of Pacific Air Forces (PACAF), isn’t yet sure what the “gift” will be, but that the U.S. is ready to respond.
“I would expect is some type of long-range ballistic missile would be the gift,” Brown told reporters Tuesday. “It’s just a matter of, does it come on Christmas Eve? Does it come on Christmas Day? Does it come in after the new year?”
“I think there’s also a possibility that the self-imposed moratorium may go away and nothing happens right away. He [Kim Jong Un] announces it, but then doesn’t shoot,” Brown continued. “Our job is to backstop the diplomatic efforts. If the diplomatic efforts kind of fall apart, we gotta be ready.”
Despite the holiday-themed threats, Brown and other military officials cannot be sure when exactly the “gift” will be carried out, hence the added surveillance.
Brown said there’s a common pattern with North Korean rhetoric, which precedes other activity that itself often precedes a missile launch.
Several newly modified RC-135V Rivet Joint surveillance aircraft have been spotted flying near North Korea, and along the demilitarized zone between North Korea and South Korea. The aircraft are among the most advanced in the U.S. Air Force fleet, and can reportedly gather a variety of signals intelligence information, such as monitoring an opponent’s communications.
The Rivet Joints can also geolocate air defense radars and communications nodes to help determine the structure of an enemy force’s electronic communications and defenses, also known as an “electronic order of battle.”
RC-135S Cobra Ball aircraft and at least one RQ-4B Global Hawk drone have also been spotted in the monitoring efforts over North Korea.
USAF RQ-4 Global Hawk (AE5415) on task over the Korean Peninsula at 52,000 feet pic.twitter.com/iYdXmavRSj
— Aircraft Spots (@AircraftSpots) December 11, 2019
Surveillance isn’t all the U.S. Air Force has at the ready. Brown recalled heightened tensions in 2017 between President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim, prior to the more recent rounds of nuclear negotiations. Brown recalled a number of military exercises and shows of force that had prompted threats from Kim.
“There’s a lot of stuff we did in 2017 that we can dust off very quickly and be ready to use,” Brown said. “We are looking at all the things we’ve done in the past…all the complete options.”
Brown has reportedly included the use of B-1 and B-2 strategic bombers in his list of possible ways to respond to renewed North Korean aggression.
The apparent willingness to return to tension and hostility between North Korea and the U.S. follows reported breakdowns in negotiations in October. Trump had previously expressed confidence in Kim’s willingness to negotiate a nuclear deal even after a prior round of negotiations in February ended early over reported disagreements on economic sanctions.
Likely before/after images from @planet that suggest North Korea conducted a rocket engine test at Sohae. Vehicles and objects appear on December 7 to conduct the test. They are mostly gone on December 8, but the ground appears to have been disturbed by the exhaust from the test. pic.twitter.com/cqhh8ABywM
— Jeffrey Lewis (@ArmsControlWonk) December 8, 2019
Increased ballistic missile tests in recent months have led some foreign policy commentators to speculate Kim has already given up the peace talks. One high-level North Korean defector has even sent a letter to Trump, warning that Kim never planned to give up nuclear weapons.