While North Korea is preparing to celebrate what would be Kim Il Sung's 101st birthday on Monday, the country's sworn enemies - South Korea and the United States - are on high alert and preparing for Pyongyang to launch a missile.
Pyongyang has a history of firing off missiles on holidays. There was one last year to mark the late Kim's centenary birthday. In 2009, they fired one on July 4 to show the U.S. its military might amid newly imposed U.N sanctions.
But North Korea is not just contending with the U.S. and South Korea. The unfolding drama has reached a fever pitch and more players are jumping in the fray to criticize the Hermit Kingdom for its violent and frenetic rhetoric.
The U.S. has fortified its defenses, China is rebuking its long-time ally and even Japan, a pacifist nation, is throwing down money to strengthen its military in the event that a North Korean missile lands on its soil. With so many moving parts and key players, it's easy to get lost, so here's what you should know:
No one is certain what kind of missile the North Koreans are planning to launch. But experts say it appears to be one dubbed the “Musudan,” an intermediate-range weapon that can travel up to 3,500 miles. That’s not far enough to reach Hawaii or the mainland United States, but within reach of Guam, a U.S. territory located east of the Phillipines in the Pacific Ocean. Successfully firing such a missile would mark a big step in Pyongyang’s efforts to develop a weapon that could deliver a nuclear warhead close to U.S. territories.
The Pentagon last week deployed a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense system to Guam to bolster the region’s defense against North Korea. It’s a land-based system that is capable of shooting at short and medium range missiles by using truck-mounted launches to bat them down. The U.S Navy also dispatched the USS McCain to a location near South Korea. Like THAAD, the ship is capable of shooting down missiles.
Both moves came after the Pentagon deployed two F-22 stealth fighter jets to South Korea to join them in military training exercises with the intention of showing North Korea that the U.S. is committed to defending Seoul.
Since 2003, a half-dozen countries have tried to negotiate a way to curb North Korea’s nuclear plans. The Six-Party Talks, as the meetings are known, haven’t reaped much more than continued North Korean provocation.
The United States: America has been an antagonist of North Korea’s since taking South Korea’s side in the Korean War. U.S. troops remain stationed in the south, which Pyongyang sees as a threat. At the same time, the U.S. has engaged North Korea in a series of deals that traded economic aid for promises of disarmament. For the U.S., the threat is twofold: North Korea’s developing a missile that could strike American territory, and North Korean weapons falling into the hands of terrorists or hostile regimes.
North Korea: The Hermit Kingdom is threatened by the more than 25,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea. It’s hard to tell what North Korea wants, but some say it's access to economic aid or perhaps the freedom to expand its nuclear capabilities, or both.
China: An ally and trade partner with North Korea that has supplied the country with food and energy assistance. Some see China’s defense of North Korea as way for China to maintain its buffer against South Korea.
“North Korea is a geopolitical force in the context of U.S. and China,” said Scott Snyder, Senior Fellow for Korea Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “When China looks at the Korean peninsula, they think of the U.S. and they see South Korea as a pawn of the U.S.”
South Korea: Seoul’s two main objectives are reunification and denuclearization. South Korea’s new president Park Geun-hui is pushing that agenda more aggressively than her predecessors.
“She has articulated a willingness to engage with North Korea’s leadership to defuse the situation which is a positive step,” said Suzanne DiMaggio, Asia Society’s Vice President of Global Policy Programs. “It remains to be seen whether Kim would take her up in this offer.”
Japan: Tokyo has upped the ante with increased spending on its military. The two countries are sworn enemies and Japan’s biggest worry is that North Korea's missile tests could reach Japanese soil.
Russia - Moscow backed the renewed U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang and condemns its nuclear and missile programs.
The Key Players:
Kim Jong-un: Details about North Korea’s young leader are shrouded in mystery. No one knows his real age, though some believe he is 29. He was thrusted into the limelight after his father, Kim Jong-il, died in 2011 and experts say he is a mere puppet in the hands of those who put him there.
“He’s surrounded by the same kind of people who have been doing this sort of strategic provocation for decades,” said Sung-Yoon Lee, a professor of Korean studies at the Fletcher School of Law at Tufts University.
Kim has put military ambitions over the needs of his own people. According to the U.N. World Food Program, one in every three children in North Korea is malnourished and “stunted.” This means people in North Korea are on average three inches shorter than their neighbors in the South.
“Kim has prioritized guns over butter,” said Snyder. “That’s why their people are poor. North Korea needs to get off that path and become integrated with the international community.”
Kim Kyong-hui: It is believed that the late Kim Jong-il’s sister is the puppeteer pulling the strings on the young leader’s actions and she wields much power within North Korea’s military.
“She is the last living member of the old guard,” said DiMaggio. “You see her in photos of meetings. Just knowing how the system operates and the fact that Kim is so inexperienced, the notion that someone like him can take over should be questioned.”
Park Geun-hye: Park is South Korea’s first female president and the daughter of ex-president Park Chung-hee. Like Kim, she followed in her father’s footstep to take the top office in her country. But that is where their similarities end. Park, who took office in February, is pro-unification and takes what she calls a “trustpolitik” approach to North Korea - a policy that would restore food aid and communication in exchange for North Korea’s good behavior.
Yun Byung-se: Yun was hand-picked by Park for South Korea’s Foreign Minister position and has been instrumental in forming Park’s “trustpolitik” policy. He’s tasked not only with dealing with North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, but he will need to respond to other regional issues like revived nationalism in Japan and China and US’ intensifying rivalry, according to the Center for Strategic & International Studies.
Kim Kwan-jin: South Korea’s defense minister is also skeptical about North Korea’s missile capabilities. He said that he has yet to find evidence that the North is preparing for a full-scale war.
"[North Korea's recent threats] are rhetorical threats," he said. "I believe the odds of a full-scale provocation are small."
Chuck Hagel: The U.S.’ newly confirmed defense secretary warned of an ominous “real and clear danger of threat” from North Korea. But when asked whether U.S. citizens should be concerned, Hagel said the U.S. has the ability to defend the country from any action taken by North Korea; Snyder agrees.
“North Korea does not pose a direct threat to us,” Snyder said. “They don’t have the capacity to reach us at this time, but it’s clear that that they’re trying to develop it.”
He adds that the onus is on U.S. officials to make sure North Korea doesn’t pursue its nuclear aspirations. If U.S. officials fail, that’s when Americans should be worried, he said.
Sam Locklear: The head of the U.S. Pacific Command recently reassured the Senate Armed Services Committee that the U.S. is ready to respond to a missile from North Korea, according to NBC News.
“I am satisfied that we are ready today, yes,” Locklear said.
He also said he believes that North Korea has positioned a Musadan missile on its east coast, which doesn’t not threaten mainland United States or Hawaii, but could put Guam in danger.
Xi Jinping: China has for a long time propped up the North Korean regime with trade and aid, but their new president Xi Jinping has taken a more strident tone against North Korea’s military ambitions.
“No one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gains,” President Xi said last week at an economic forum in Hainan province. “While pursuing its own interests, a country should accommodate the legitimate interests of others.”
So can the U.S. count on China as an ally? Probably not, Snyder said.
“China would like to see North Korean provocations curbed and there is an interest in denuclearization,” Snyder said. But he adds that China is focused on cultivating stability North Korea without U.S. influence.
Shinzō Abe: Japan’s Abe is yet another rookie leader on this list charged with the daunting task of curbing the rhetoric from North Korea. North Korea’s threats, coupled with China’s claims over disputed island territories has prompted the new president to bolster Japan’s military power and shed its postwar pacifism. He has increased Japan’s military spending for the first time in 11 years, according to The New York Times.
"The Japan-U.S. alliance will face a critical situation if we detect an attack when jointly preparing for a missile launch, but decide not to help," Mr. Abe told parliament in February, referring to North Korea’s recent missile test.