Democracy Dies in Darkness


Are we on the brink of nuclear war with North Korea? Probably not.

By Anna Fifield

August 11, 2017 at 9:28 AM

Watch more!
The Washington Post revealed that U.S. analysts think North Korea has produced a nuclear warhead that can fit inside its missiles. Worried about what that means? Here are four things you need to know. (Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)

SEOUL — The saber-rattling from both North Korea and the Trump administration has many people worried that the world is on the brink of a nuclear war.

Kim Jong Un’s regime is threatening to fire a missile to land near Guam, the American territory in the Pacific Ocean that is home to two huge U.S. military bases, by the middle of this month. He seems to have the technical capacity to make good on this threat: His regime has made observable progress in its missile program, notably firing two intercontinental ballistic missiles last month theoretically capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.

President Trump has issued tough warnings to North Korea in response. In his latest statement, on Thursday, he warned North Korea that “things will happen to them like they never thought possible” should the isolated country attack the United States or its allies.

Watch more!
President Trump on Aug. 10 said threats he made to North Korea two days earlier about facing the "fire and fury" of the U.S. "may not be tough enough." (The Washington Post)

There have been many periods of heightened tensions between the two countries over the years, especially in April and August, when South Korea and the United States conducted joint military exercises that North Korea considered preparation for an invasion.

The Washington Post asked a range of experts in both the United States and South Korea if this time was any different. How worried should we be about conflict breaking out, accidental or otherwise?

Here are their replies.

Duyeon Kim, visiting senior fellow at the Korean Peninsula Future Forum, specializing in nuclear nonproliferation

“There’s an enormous difference between speaking North Korea’s language and firing verbal bombs, and frankly, engaging in a dangerously childish shouting match. The administration seems to believe that President Trump’s 'fire and fury' was designed to send 'a strong message to North Korea in the kind of language that North Korea understands.' Now, Trump’s latest threat of the impossible has directly targeted Kim Jong Un. Pyongyang surely has done nothing right and threats of its war plans are more detailed than we have seen with a deadline for Guam. But words by the president of the United States matter. Irresponsibly throwing around nuclear war threats could spiral into accidental and inadvertent conflict from miscalculation and mishap. The Kim regime is not suicidal to lodge the first strike, but one never knows if it’s given any reason — even a misinterpreted one — to hit the button. That accidental strike may not even be targeted at the U.S., but rather at South Korea or Japan. Only Kim Jong Un knows. The unpredictable Trump factor combined with unchecked presidential authority over his nuclear weapons makes the situation even more dangerous.”

David Kang, director of the Korean Studies Institute at the University of Southern California

“This time isn’t any different from the North Korean side — they haven’t done that much different than in the past. Kim Jong Un may be testing more missiles, but essentially their behavior is not any different. The big thing we keep missing about North Korea is that their threats are always the second half of a sentence, and we ignore the first half. North Korea consistently says, 'If the United States attacks us first, we will fight back.' The only thing that gets reported in the U.S. media is the second clause, not the first. So their comments are clearly deterrent in nature, and the Guam 'threat' was exactly along those lines. So we always overhype the North Korean threat, because it is absolutely not a threat of preemptive or first strike. For the U.S., the current administration might be speaking perhaps a little more flamboyantly than previous administrations, for sure. But essentially what they are saying is no different than any previous administration has said: 'If the United States is attacked first, we will fight back, as well.' The message is one of deterrence, not first strike. Both sides are reiterating that they will fight back if attacked. Deterrence works, because both sides believe the other. It is widely accepted that North Korea will strike at American targets somewhere in the Pacific if we attack them first, almost nobody doubts that. For their part, the North Koreans fully expect a massive American attack at some point, they believe us. So deterrence holds, because of the costs involved. It’s not pretty, but it works.”

Alison Evans, deputy head of the Asia-Pacific desk at IHS Markit’s Country Risk team

“In many ways the pattern of belligerent rhetoric and weapons demonstrations is similar to previous years, and — importantly — conflict is still unlikely. There are multiple actions the U.S. or North Korea could take before, for example, targeting the other with a missile: The U.S. continues to conduct sorties over the Korean Peninsula with B-1B Lancer strategic bombers, and North Korea could fire a Scud-type missile toward, but not at, Guam. The current situation differs from previous periods of increased tension in that both sides are making substantial and specific threats to strike the other if perceived necessary. In this kind of brinkmanship the potential for miscalculation is high, particularly relating to the assessment of what constitutes imminent hostile intent by the other side and their likely reaction to a given, potentially escalatory, action. Things that would indicated increased risk include growing U.S. military deployments to the region or a North Korean satellite launch, for example; on the other hand, indicators of reduced risk include evidence of unofficial talks or signs of smaller-scale or delayed joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises.”

Catherine Dill, senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies

“The rhetoric and actions from North Korea during this period of tension don’t mark a significant departure from past periods of tension in my view. But the turmoil present in the current U.S. administration and apparent lack of restraint in formulating a cohesive response do introduce new challenges to coming back down, even if the interests of both sides haven’t changed. We should be aware of the possibility of conflict, especially the increased potential for escalation with the disjointed Trump administration, but I’m certainly not stocking up on canned goods any more than I normally do. I do, however, see a real risk for misperceptions leading to hasty actions that could hamper crisis management attempts or future diplomatic endeavors. Take Guam — if the United States perceives the North Korean statement as an explicit threat of attack rather than an opening to test the waters, that may be the difference between successfully reducing tensions and trying to intercept an IRBM that North Korea feels compelled to launch. The latter scenario has very real consequences that our policymakers should calmly think through.”

North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, watches a military drill marking the 85th anniversary of the establishment of the Korean People's Army in this handout photo by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency made available on April 26. (Reuters)

Yoon Young-kwan, former South Korean foreign minister and professor emeritus in international relations of Seoul National University

“North Korea’s threat has moved to a different level with the recent two successful ICBM tests. Now the U.S. mainland is in range of North Korean missile attacks, and this makes the current situation very different from previous periods of tension. Some South Koreans and Japanese are now wondering if the U.S. is willing to risk San Francisco, Chicago or Los Angeles if North Korea conducts provocations toward its allies.

The biggest risks in a situation like this one are misunderstanding, misperception and overreaction. It’s crucial to lower the possibility of these three from occurring. The fact that both President Trump and Kim Jong Un share a leadership style that values unpredictability raises chances of misunderstanding and/or misperception. It is important that the U.S. does not push North Korea into a dead end so they feel they are left with no options. During the Cuban missile crisis, former president Kennedy made sure the U.S. didn’t box in Khrushchev in order to maintain peace. It is very concerning that there are divisions inside the Trump administration in policy toward North Korea.”

Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu 

“The main difference between today and prior periods of tension is the hyperbole is flying in both directions. For years now, we have learned to not take Pyongyang seriously when it lets loose with it colorful rhetorical barrages. Why we see some advantage in emulating this is beyond me. I do take some solace in the view that barking dogs don’t bite, but a little less growling would not be a bad thing.

I think the probability of conflict actually breaking out remains low. Kim Jong Un is not suicidal. While the Post’s headline today was “Trump escalates rhetoric,” in truth he went from threatening responses if they said bad things (which they immediately did, re Guam) to if they did bad things against the U.S. or allies (or “anybody that we love”). That brings him more in line with Mattis and with long-standing U.S. policy, not to initiate hostilities but to respond with great force if attacked.”

Park Hyeong-jung, senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification, a government-funded think-tank focusing on reunification.

“In 1994, when the U.S. government reviewed a plan to bomb North Korea’s nuclear site at Yongbyon, the situation was much more serious than now. The fact that the American government considered an evacuation of its civilians in South Korea tells a lot. Both the United States and North Korea seem to be at the stage of making threats but not real actions have been taken because taking any actions at this stage will mean a huge catastrophe.

Though it is impossible to rule out a possibility of a conflict by misunderstandings, I think both nations know what their limits are because they have been dealing with each other since 1953, when the Korean War ended with an armistice. The United States and North Korea have managed to keep peace for several decades in this region, and it would have been impossible without very good calculations.”

President Trump arrives in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York to speak to the media about infrastructure and respond to questions about the violence, injuries and deaths at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
President Trump, center, delivers remarks following a meeting on infrastructure at Trump Tower. Standing alongside him are, from left, Director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and Director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Trump speaks about the violence in Charlottesville as he talks to the media. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
Trump speaks to the news media about the protests in Charlottesville after his statement on the infrastructure discussion. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
Trump, center, stops to respond to more questions about his responses to the violence in Charlottesville as he leaves a news conference at Trump Tower. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
At the White House, President Trump displays a memorandum he signed addressing Chinas trade practices. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
Trump salutes as he disembarks from Marine One at the White House. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
At his golf resort in Bedminster, N.J., Trump speaks about the violent protests in Charlottesville that turned deadly Saturday. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
Trump, center, and Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, left, shake hands with military veterans after signing the VA Choice and Quality Employment Act in Bedminster, N.J. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
President Trump attends a workforce-development discussion at his club in Bedminster, N.J. From left: senior adviser Jared Kushner, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the president, Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, aide Andrew Bremberg and Ivanka Trump. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
President Trump speaks to reporters after meeting with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, left, U.N. AmbassadorNikki Haley and national security adviser H.R. McMaster in Bedminster. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
President Trump and Vice President Pence arrive to speak with reporters before a security briefing at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J. (Evan Vucci/AP)
Trump, accompanied by Pence, speaks to reporters in Bedminster. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
President Trump talks about North Korea during a briefing on the opioid crisis at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster. (Evan Vucci/AP)
Trump walks to board Marine One on the South Lawn for a short trip to Andrews Air Force Base, Md., en route to Bedminster for vacation. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump talks with West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice at a rally in Huntington. Justice, a Democrat, said he is switching parties to join the Republicans. (Darron Cummings/AP)
Trump listens to a presentation by Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin during a VA telehealth event in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump and Shulkin, center, talk with a patient via a tablet during the telehealth event. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump, flanked by Sens. Tom Cotton (R- Ark.), left, and David Perdue (R-Ga.), speaks in the Roosevelt Room during the unveiling of legislation that would place new limits on legal immigration. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump, joined by Cotton, speaks in the Roosevelt Room. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump, flanked by Small Business Administration Administrator Linda McMahon, left, and adviser Ivanka Trump speaks during a White House event with owners of small businesses. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
New White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and Trump shake hands after Kellys private swearing-in ceremony in the Oval Office. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump speaks during a Cabinet meeting at the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump waves to well-wishers after dining at Trump International Hotel in Washington. (Chris Kleponis/Pool photo via European Pressphoto Agency)
Trump speaks to law enforcement officials about the MS-13 street gang on the Long Island University campus in Brentwood, N.Y. (Evan Vucci/AP)
Police applaud a line by Trump during remarks about his proposed government effort against the MS-13 gang at a gathering of federal, state and local law enforcement officials in Brentwood. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Trump speaks with reporters at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland after firing Reince Priebus and naming Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly as his new chief of staff. (Evan Vucci/AP)
At the White House, Trump welcomes Jennifer Scalise, wife of Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), who was shot in June at a congressional baseball practice. The ceremony honored first responders who helped during the shooting in Alexandria, Va. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump presents the Medal of Valor to U.S. Capitol Police Officer Crystal Griner during the ceremony honoring first responders at the shooting that took place during a GOP baseball team practice. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump greets, from left, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), Vice President Pence, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Terry Gou, chief executive of Foxconn, in the East Room of the White House after announcing the first U.S. assembly plant for the electronics giant. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Supporter Geno DiFabio speaks with Trump. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
Trump and Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri walk to the Rose Garden of the White House for a joint news conference. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
From left, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Trump and senior adviser Jared Kushner attend a meeting with the Lebanese prime minister in the Cabinet Room of the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump waves to the Boy Scout troops and leaders assembled at the groups national jamboree in West Virginia. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
From the Blue Room of the White House, the president urges Senate Republicans to move forward with legislation to overhaul the Affordable Care Act. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Trump and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), second from left, stand for the colors during the commissioning ceremony of the supercarrier USS Gerald R. Ford in Norfolk. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
Trump greets guests during a meeting in the Oval Office with survivors of the attack on the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Photo Gallery: Scenes from Trump’s second six months in office

Read more:

China warns North Korea: You’re on your own if you go after the United States

If Trump wants a nuclear attack against North Korea, his military advisers have few other options

How three recent launches signaled new leaps in North Korea’s missile capabilities

Anna Fifield is The Post’s bureau chief in Tokyo, focusing on Japan and the Koreas. She previously reported for the Financial Times from Washington DC, Seoul, Sydney, London and from across the Middle East.

Post Recommends

You obviously love great journalism.

With special savings on our Basic Digital package, you’ll never miss a single story again.

Already a subscriber?

Secure & Encrypted