Here are four potential paths to miscalculations of varying degrees. All are avoidable.
1. North Korea could detonate a hydrogen bomb in the Pacific. Kim Jong Un has threatened to test a hydrogen bomb, as the next step in his nuclear strategy. South Africa in the 1980s had a similar idea, without the showstopper H-bomb — but the circumstances were somewhat different, and the strategy was kept secret.
South Africa had developed a rudimentary nuclear arsenal, completing six enriched-uranium bombs by 1989. The South African strategy was to try to coerce Washington to come to its aid should pro-Soviet forces invade from the north. The strategy was never tested, as President F.W. de Klerk ended the South African nuclear program upon taking office in 1989.
But critics of the plan point out that a South African nuclear test might have had the opposite effect at the time, further antagonizing the Reagan administration and expanding the existing rift between Pretoria and Washington over South Africa’s apartheid regime.
What would a North Korean H-bomb test lead to? Instead of deterring the United States, it might just be the tipping point leading to a U.S. first strike against North Korea.
2. Trump’s aggressive rhetoric could set him apart from past U.S. leaders. Previous administrations failed to curtail North Korea’s nuclear program, passing this “hot potato” down to the Trump administration. But Trump’s use of inflammatory rhetoric has emerged as a serious independent concern.
A recent strand of nuclear proliferation studies looks at the importance of a leader’s personality, identity, perception and world view, underlining the importance of a leader’s psychological makeup. This type of provocative and aggressive talk may work on the campaign trail, but can be particularly dangerous in the realm of nuclear diplomacy — especially when Trump hurls insults at the “famously thin-skinned” Kim. The North Koreans simply “don’t get” Trump, and are trying to “make sense” of his statements.
Here’s the danger: North Korea could misinterpret Trump’s statements as an impending first strike.
The importance of beliefs and perceptions is also salient when considering Trump’s position and tough talk on another nuclear issue: the Iran nuclear deal. Despite reports that Iran is not in “material breach” of the agreement, Trump’s preconceived beliefs about the agreement greatly impact his policy toward it. Trump seems to think that the agreement should be undermined or terminated despite evidence that it is achieving its goal of inhibiting the Iranian nuclear program.
3. The United States could try — and fail — to shoot down North Korean missiles. Since the 1980s the U.S. military has spent about $200 billion to develop the technological capability to shoot down ballistic missiles. This effort has produced different systems for different missiles, including the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) interceptors, developed to shoot down incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs); and the Aegis and THAAD systems, developed to shoot down shorter-range missiles.
But shooting down missiles is hard to do, and the GMD interceptors are relatively inaccurate.
The THAAD and the Aegis systems have a better test record than the GMD interceptors, but none of the three has been actively used in an actual war. In theory, the United States could use the THAAD and Aegis systems to shoot down North Korean “demonstration” missiles launched over the Pacific.
But if the intercept fails, it could damage U.S. status, causing allies to lose faith in American security promises — and perhaps lead to new challenges from rivals. Such a failure could also lead to a miscalculation on North Korea’s side, if Pyongyang wrongly assumed that the intercept was an act of war.
4. The global media may miss important nuances in North Korean statements. North Korean statements have a particular internal logic of their own, which outsiders tend to miss completely.
In early August, North Korea stated that it was “carefully examining the operational plan for making an enveloping fire at the areas around Guam.” Analysts interpreted this as a threat to launch missiles around Guam, targeting the international waters surrounding the island.
This threat was bad enough, but the North Koreans were not, in fact, threatening to hit the island itself. Global media reports, however, depicted the North Koreans as threatening the island itself. The difference between the two scenarios is rather acute: One entails North Korean missiles falling outside U.S. territory, and the other depicts them hitting Guam directly.
What’s important is that administration officials are getting it right — even if the media don’t account for these important nuances. Public concern will not lead to a strategic miscalculation on the U.S.’s part, though it may impact the crisis in two other, opposing ways: It can enhance the pressure on the White House to react to further North Korean provocation; or, more likely, it can increase the pressure to find a diplomatic solution.
The more concerning question is whether the Trump administration and the understaffed State Department are equipped to handle the North Korean crisis. U.S. officials are by now skilled at unpacking “Pyongyang speak.” Senior officials like Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson repeatedly stress the focus on diplomatic and economic pressure, rather than the military option, but is this enough to de-escalate the current crisis?
Words alone are not likely to trigger a nuclear exchange, but they can surely lead to further escalation, as we are witnessing now. Each of these four paths is a mere possibility — and none are particularly likely to occur. The North Koreans probably realize that detonating a thermonuclear device in the Pacific could lead to war, and take Trump’s aggressive rhetoric with some grains of salt (despite Pyongyang’s declarations to the opposite).
Even if the U.S. tries and fails to shoot down a North Korean missile, war will not automatically break out. But it might. And all these paths underline the importance of prudence and diplomacy — and the need for balanced, farseeing statesmanship. The question is, can Trump and Kim deliver the goods?
Or Rabinowitz is assistant professor of international relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and author of “Bargaining on Nuclear Tests” (Oxford University Press, 2014).