SEOUL — North Korea met President Trump’s “fire and fury” warnings with an unusually specific threat of its own Thursday: claiming it would send a missile toward the U.S. territory of Guam on a flight into the sea that would cover 3,356.7 kilometers and last 1,065 seconds.
Whether the North is willing to carry out the launch — and risk escalating the showdown with Washington — is uncertain. But the near-miss scenario, analysts say, reflects an important insight into the mind and motives of the North’s leader, Kim Jong Un.
He is prepared to push back against the United States and its allies to a point, many believe, but never enough to risk a war that would threaten his rule as the third-generation strongman in a family dynasty that took hold after World War II.
“What Kim Jong Un really wants is to improve his missiles and nuclear weapons and to keep the country under his leadership,” said Michael Madden, who runs the North Korea Leadership Watch website.
His endgame is all about seeking to stay in power, analysts said.
“Kim Jong Un is not trying to pick a fight,” Madden added.
Still, North Korea is not showing signs of backing down at the moment.
In a statement attributed to the North Korean army’s Strategic Forces commander, Pyongyang threatened to fire four intermediate-range Hwasong-12 ballistic missiles over Japan by the middle of this month. The missiles would fly “3,356.7 km for 1,065 seconds,” or nearly 18 minutes, the statement said, and would land within 18 to 25 miles of Guam, the American territory in the Pacific that is home to large Air Force and Navy bases.
The announcement came after South Korea’s National Security Council urged North Korea to calm down, offering the prospect of talks, while its military issued a much sterner warning. The joint chiefs of staff said North Korea would suffer “strong and resolute retaliation” from allied American and South Korean forces if it mounted an attack on either country.
Although the Western caricature of Kim is of a pudgy madman with a funny hairdo, he has been a textbook dictator, making rational decisions for someone who wants to retain absolute power.
The Guam threat was not made in response to Trump’s “fire and fury” remarks — the wheels of Kim’s bureaucracy move more slowly than Trump’s — but rather in reaction to the United States launching a Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on Aug. 2.
The Kims have kept a tight grip on North Korea internally through a brutal system of repression and fear and have increasingly kept the outside world at bay by developing nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. This has traditionally been viewed as a deterrent to fend off the kind of fate Saddam Hussein suffered in Iraq.
Since taking the reins at the end of 2011, Kim has rapidly accelerated the development of North Korea’s weapons program, presiding over three nuclear tests and rapid improvements in its missile technology.
Last month, North Korea launched two intercontinental ballistic missiles believed to be capable of reaching the mainland United States, and American intelligence officials have concluded that it is now able to attach nuclear warheads to them, crossing a key threshold on the path to becoming a full-fledged nuclear power.
While these weapons might work as a deterrent, it would be suicidal for Kim to use them and risk retaliation by the much more powerful U.S. military.
Madden, an American analyst in contact with senior North Korean officials, said Pyongyang was well aware that Trump has a habit of speaking — or tweeting — off the cuff.
“North Koreans are not taking this seriously. They’re saying that Trump is saying these kinds of things because he hasn’t ‘consolidated his power’ yet,” Madden said — using a line that American experts usually use to describe questionable things Kim does.
Cheong Seong-chang, a North Korean leadership expert at the left-leaning Sejong Institute in the South, agreed with Madden that Kim does not want a conflict with the United States.
“North Korea is not developing ICBM technology to start a war with the U.S.,” Cheong said. “This is all about preventing the U.S. from intervening in any military conflict on the Korean Peninsula. It wants to influence American decisions. The U.S. does not want to be criticized for risking American lives to protect its allies.”
Others see a ploy by North Korea to ratchet up the tensions and make the most progress on its weapons program before sanctions bite and it is forced to return to the negotiating table.
“The U.S. will only agree to talk with the North if it thinks a physical clash is imminent,” said Koo Hae-woo, who was a top official at South Korea’s intelligence service until 2014 and now runs the Korea Institute for Future Strategies think-tank. “The North is not aiming for a clash but increasing the tension to create an environment for negotiation.”
But behind the assessment of Kim as a rational, if brutal, leader with a master game plan lies a worrying precedent.
Rational leaders of new nuclear states with a small number of weapons tend to be most reckless in their early years, said Van Jackson, an expert on North Korean security issues at Victoria University in New Zealand.
“There’s a temptation to see how much juice they can squeeze out of these weapons that they’ve spent so much money and effort making,” Jackson said, adding that this created more pressure, not less, to demonstrate nuclear capability.
The closest analogy to the North Korea situation is Pakistan, he said. Rather than following the Cold War model of mutually assured destruction, Pakistan has adopted a strategy of “asymmetric escalation” — being able to use a nuclear arsenal against a conventional attack.
“The fact that Kim Jong Un is rational doesn’t necessarily lead to good outcomes,” Jackson said. “Rationality takes us to a more dangerous place right now.”
Yoonjung Seo in Seoul and Yuki Oda in Tokyo contributed to this report.