Despite the recent escalation in tensions between North Korea and the United States, Pacific Northwest experts on the Asian nation agree both parties are likely to confine themselves to lobbing fiery rhetoric, rather than nuclear missiles.
The latest in a long string of provocations came Tuesday and Wednesday, as President Donald Trump and North Korean officials exchanged volleys of rhetoric and threats of military force.
The rise in tensions follows threatening comments from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s regime, which were issued in retaliation to the new round of economic sanctions unanimously imposed upon the hermit country by the United Nations Security Council last week.
On Tuesday, President Trump raised the tone still further. “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” he said at a news briefing. “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
That drew a dismissive response from North Korean officials late Wednesday, who called the U.S. president “bereft of reason” and promised any military strike would be “mercilessly repelled.”
Rhetoric of this level may be common to North Korea’s propaganda apparatus, but it’s relatively unheard of in the Oval Office, said Don Hellmann, a professor emeritus at the University of Washington who studies the region.
A statement like the one Trump made Tuesday has probably not been issued by a president since the end of World War II, he said.
“There’s the implicit threat of nukes, not just if North Korea actually commits an act of war, but if they keep threatening,” he said. “It’s suggesting options with a country we are not technically at war with. It just goes beyond what we’ve seen.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson attempted to walk back the president’s statement Wednesday while en route to Guam – the U.S. territory that North Korea directly threatened to bomb in response to Trump – saying that the U.S. stance toward North Korea had not changed.
Trump’s statement, issued from his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, reflects the incoherency of the United States’ policy on North Korea, or more accurately, lack thereof, Hellmann said. “It’s really kind of sad that we’ve developed no policy for a conflict that would assuredly result in a war that would see a few million killed,” he said.
In addition to a series of intercontinental ballistic missile tests recently undertaken by North Korea, many fear that Kim’s regime has stepped closer to creating a viable nuclear missile capable of reaching the U.S. The Washington Post reported Tuesday that a confidential assessment by the Defense Intelligence Agency stated it believed North Korea had finally succeeded in miniaturizing a nuclear warhead that could be carried by one of its missiles.
However, it is important to note that the DIA’s assessment does not represent a consensus among the 17 U.S. intelligence-gathering agencies, and the DIA is rather conservative in its projections, said Thomas Preston, director of the Global Justice and Security Studies program at Washington State University.
“When I heard this news come out, I thought to myself that it had to be from DIA,” said Preston, who has worked on North Korea for the past 15 years. “I don’t think for a second that they’ve achieved this ability.”
North Korea is definitely looking toward achieving miniaturization, which may be a few years down the road, but even that is still just one of several difficult technical accomplishments necessary for arming a missile, Preston said.
Kim doesn’t require nuclear missiles to wreak devastation against U.S. allies like South Korea and Japan, experts said.
For the past 40 years, Pyongyang has possessed the capability to obliterate Seoul through conventional, chemical and biological weaponry – half of South Koreans live within 50 miles of the demilitarized zone that separates the two countries, Preston said. North Korea has about 10,000 protected artillery weapons fixed on Seoul, which would likely be usable if the U.S. attacked, and those installations alone could kill nearly a million people, Hellmann added.
At the center of the conflict, behind the explosive rhetoric, lies the principle of deterrence. While both leaders may be using strong language to win over audiences at home, neither Kim nor Trump are likely to act because the costs would be staggeringly high.
“It’s a mistake to assume North Korea is crazy, or that Kim Jong Un isn’t acting strategically,” Preston said. “North Korea is not foolish enough to think it could strike and not be completely destroyed.”
University of Washington’s Director of the Center for Korea Studies Clark Sorenson said that the rhetoric isn’t truly a reason to worry, but that it does box the U.S. into pursuing certain options.
This is not to say that war is impossible. Wars have been started by rhetoric, and brinksmanship is not the way to proceed, experts said.
“Of course not! We went to war in Iraq because they might have had weapons of mass destruction,” Hellmann said. “This guy has nukes and is brandishing them.”
Even though outright war is unlikely, North Korea’s steady advance toward nuclear missiles is rapidly changing the security situation for anxious U.S. allies. South Korea and Japan have recently broached the topic of developing first-strike capabilities to defend themselves, and South Korea’s new president Moon Jae-in has allowed the temporary deployment of the THAAD U.S. missile defense system.
The controversial introduction of U.S. missiles to the Korean peninsula, which Moon originally delayed, has angered China, which is uncomfortable with U.S. weapons so close to its territory. But THAAD, along with security developments in Japan, might become useful leverage with the Chinese in negotiating their cooperation in handling Kim Jong Un, Sorenson said.
“On this, China is neither an ally nor an enemy,” Sorenson said. “But it takes subtlety. Bombastic pronouncements anger the Chinese and aren’t helpful.”
Experts agreed the best path forward for the administration would be through private diplomatic conversations. U.N. sanctions, which were supported by China, are a good step forward, as are shows of military unity like the recent joint mission flown by American, South Korean and Japanese pilots in July, they said.
Experienced officials like Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster have already begun walking back Trump’s rhetoric and should help guide a smarter North Korea strategy, Preston said.
“Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail,” he said.