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.
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.”
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.”