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North Korea’s scary past 24 hours, explained

Tensions on the Korean Peninsula just got a lot hotter. Here’s what’s going on.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un just released three American hostages. They will now return home with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
In this image made from video released by KRT on Tuesday, March 7, 2017, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, reacts during the launch of four missiles in North Korea. On Monday, North Korea fired four ballistic missiles in an apparent protest against ongoing U.S.-South Korean military drills that it views as an invasion rehearsal.
(KRT via AP Video)

It was a scary Monday on the Korean Peninsula, where the following all happened in less than 24 hours:

North Korea launched four ballistic missiles toward Japan and boasted they were a dry run for attacking American troops there; the US began the deployment of a controversial anti-ballistic missile system in South Korea despite furious pushback from a very unhappy China; and North Korea temporarily banned all Malaysian citizens from leaving the country in a dramatic escalation of a diplomatic spat with one of its few allies in the world.

To be clear, we’re still relatively far from the point of actual military conflict breaking out between any of these countries. But the situation is definitely worrisome, and the fact that things have escalated so quickly is a stark reminder that it’s North Korea, and not Russia or ISIS, that might actually pose the gravest and most immediate threat to American national security.

Here’s a quick guide to what happened, what’s likely to happen next, and what it all means.

Kim Jong Un really loves to see his rockets fly off toward other countries

On Monday, North Korea launched four ballistic missiles toward Japan, three of which landed within 200 miles of Japan's coastline. That means the missiles landed within Japan’s “exclusive economic zone”: Under international maritime law, that’s where countries enjoy quasi-sovereignty over things like natural resources there.

So while the missiles didn’t technically hit Japanese territory — which would be an act of war — they still landed in an area under de facto Japanese control. In other words, it was pretty damn provocative.

North Korea fired the missiles in response to an annual joint US-South Korea military exercise, known as Foal Eagle, that involves a series of joint and combined ground, air, naval, and special operations field exercises. According to Pentagon spokesperson Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, the exercises are designed to be “a clear demonstration of the U.S. commitment to the alliance” between the US and South Korea and to increase their defensive readiness against possible aggression from the North.

The two-month drills have taken place every year for four decades. And every year, North Korea gets mad and retaliates. Indeed, the 2017 Foal Eagle exercises began on Wednesday, and the next day, like clockwork, Pyongyang threatened to retaliate. On Monday, it fired the missiles.

In a report issued shortly after the launch, North Korean state media stated that the military unit that launched the missiles was “tasked to strike the bases of the U.S. imperialist aggressor forces in Japan” and described Kim Jong Un “feasting his eyes on the trails of ballistic rockets.” There are currently about 54,000 US troops stationed in at least seven bases across Japan.

North Korean media said that Kim had ordered his military “to keep highly alert as required by the grim situation in which an actual war may break out anytime.” And North Korea's UN ambassador, Ja Song Nam, sent a letter to the UN Security Council on Monday warning that "the situation on the Korean Peninsula is again inching to the brink of a nuclear war," due to the US-South Korean military drills.

This sort of apocalyptic rhetoric is actually pretty standard fare when it comes to North Korea, and doesn’t mean that armed conflict — let alone nuclear war — is anywhere close to breaking out. But the US, South Korea, and Japan are still taking Pyongyang’s actions very seriously.

South Korea’s acting president, Hwang Kyo-ahn, reportedly told the South Korean National Security Council Monday that North Korea's actions amounted to “a direct challenge to the international community and a grave violation.”

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe characterized the missile launch as “a new level of threat,” and said that “Japan will continue to coordinate closely with the United States, South Korea and other countries to strongly urge North Korea to exercise restraint.”

Which brings us to the next big development that just happened.

Meet THAAD, South Korea’s new US-built missile defense system

On Monday — the same day North Korea launched its ballistic missiles — the United States military announced that it had officially begun the deployment of the THAAD anti-ballistic missile defense system in South Korea.

THAAD, which stands for Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, is designed to detect and then intercept incoming ballistic missiles in their “terminal” phase — that is, when they’re on the way down, not on the way up. It’s a system that’s already deployed in Guam, and is now being deployed in South Korea to protect against any incoming missiles from the North.

How THAAD works.
Lockheed Martin

Strangely, the fact that the THAAD deployment announcement came just hours after North Korea launched its ballistic missiles is actually a bit of a coincidence. The deployment of the THAAD system to South Korea has been in the works for months now, going back to the Obama administration. It just so happens that the first part of the system is finally being deployed right now — in the wake of a major provocation from the North.

But there’s another dynamic happening here that’s making the situation even more tense. You see, the deployment of the THAAD system isn’t just something that’s irking the North. It’s also making China really, really mad. That’s because while it clearly presents a challenge to North Korea’s military might, the THAAD system is also seen by China as a threat to its military capabilities.

Here’s the deal: The THAAD system uses sophisticated radar to detect incoming missiles. In order to detect incoming missiles from North Korea, the THAAD’s radar system needs to be pointed at — you guessed it — North Korea. But it just so happens that when you point this sophisticated radar system at North Korea, you don’t just see North Korea — you also see parts of China. China and North Korea do share a border, after all, and the site from which these latest North Korean missiles were fired is really close to that border.

That means China is worried that THAAD’s radar system could potentially help the US better detect Chinese missiles being launched at the United States in the event of a future war. To the US military, of course, the ability to detect a Chinese nuke heading our way even earlier than we currently can sounds pretty great.

But for the Chinese military, this means that the US now has a slight edge. The Chinese military can’t put radar anywhere near that close to the US to detect incoming US nukes, which means that in a nuclear conflict, the US would have a slight strategic advantage — it would be able to detect an incoming Chinese nuke and respond faster than China could in the reverse.

Getting super worked up about another country potentially having a very slight strategic advantage over you in some hypothetical future war might seem a tad ridiculous to regular folks like you and me — and especially to those who didn’t live through the darkest days of the Cold War, when such matters felt much more real and immediate — but these sorts of things are taken very, very seriously by militaries, and China is no exception.

“I want to emphasize again that China is firm in its resolve to oppose the deployment of THAAD in the ROK [Republic of Korea] and will resolutely take necessary actions to safeguard its own security interests,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang at a daily press briefing in Beijing on Tuesday. “Any consequences entailed from that will be borne by the US and the ROK. We strongly urge relevant parties to stop the deployment process and not to go further down that wrong path,” he said.

Indeed, China has already begun to impose some of those “consequences” on South Korea — or, more specifically, on one of South Korea’s biggest companies. The company in question is the Lotte Group, a multinational conglomerate headquartered in Seoul. Last week, it agreed to give up a parcel of land it owned to the South Korean government to use as a base for the THAAD system.

Then, all of a sudden, at least 23 Lotte Mart stores across China were mysteriously shut down by Chinese authorities. As CNN reports, Chinese officials claim they were shut down over violations of fire safety regulations, but the timing is a bit ... suspicious, to say the least.

On Sunday, South Korea’s foreign minister, Yun Byung-se, said that China’s retaliatory measures against the THAAD deployment could be in violation of World Trade Organization regulations and the China-Korea Free Trade Agreement.

So, to recap: In just the past day or so, we’ve seen North Korean missiles fired toward Japan, the deployment of a missile defense system that has royally pissed off the Chinese, and the start of a potential trade fight between China and South Korea. We can only imagine — and fear — what the rest of the week will bring.

Watch: The North Korean nuclear threat, explained