TOKYO — The United States and North Korea are engaging in high-tension brinkmanship, with North Korea warning Tuesday that it will “hit the U.S. first” with nuclear weapons, but the prospects that this could escalate into an actual clash of arms are slim.
The stakes remain too high for both countries, analysts say, today as they were yesterday, as they were last year. But the temperature in the region has become decidedly hotter in recent days. And there’s always the chance that one side or the other could miscalculate.
Expectations are mounting that North Korea will unleash some kind of provocation this week, and the U.S. Navy rerouted an aircraft carrier strike group, capable of both firing missiles and shooting missiles down, to the Korean Peninsula over the weekend.
On Tuesday President Trump issued his latest tweet taking aim at Pyongyang. “North Korea is looking for trouble. If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them! U.S.A.” he tweeted.
Pyongyang said Tuesday that “pre-emptive strikes are not the exclusive right of the United States.”
“Our military is keeping an eye on the movement of enemy forces while putting them in our nuclear sights,” declared the Rodong Sinmun, the mouthpiece of the ruling Workers’ Party. With trademark bravado, the newspaper warned that North Korea will use its “mighty nuclear weapons” to “obliterate” the United States if it made the slightest movement toward a preemptive strike.
But there are good reasons to think the tension won’t escalate further into an actual clash.
“I don’t think we’re about to go to war against North Korea,” said Ralph Cossa, president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’s Pacific Forum in Honolulu. “But the United States is certainly trying to send a message that they are fed up with the North Koreans and with sending strong letters of protest.”
Saturday is the Day of the Sun in North Korea, the 105th anniversary of the birthday of Kim Il Sung, the state’s founding president and the current leader’s grandfather. It coincides with Easter weekend in the United States, and there’s a definite North Korean pattern of disrupting American holidays. Analysts say they think North Korea may conduct a nuclear test or another missile launch — or something else — to mark the day.
The American aircraft carrier at the head of the strike group, the USS Carl Vinson, was the very same one that a North Korea-linked website showed going up flames in a mock attack video last month, when it was participating in drills with the South Korean military.
The mere suggestion of striking North Korea has been ruled out by successive American administrations.
For one, it’s not clear where to strike. North Korea’s nuclear test site is underground and its fissile material is spread among multiple sites, while its missiles are increasingly fired from mobile launches that can be wheeled out from any hangar or tunnel.
Second, any attack on North Korea could be expected to unleash a devastating attack on Seoul, a metropolitan area of some 20 million people that lies within reach of North Korea’s conventional artillery.
“I don’t think there is a good option for the U.S. to preemptively strike North Korea,” said Euan Graham, a former British diplomat who served in Pyongyang and is now at the Lowy Institute in Sydney. “But I think coercive diplomacy like this can prevent a real escalation.”
Sending an aircraft carrier and its accompanying guided-missile destroyers and cruiser to the region was a “classic coercive diplomatic measure,” Graham said. “It’s straight out of the geopolitical playbook.”
Cossa agreed. “The first thing on the checklist is ‘demonstrate resolve,’ ” Cossa said. “Try to make the North Koreans and perhaps the Chinese, too, a bit nervous.”
Van Jackson, an associate professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, said that he was “99 percent certain” that the aircraft carrier was not moving to strike North Korea.
“The Carl Vinson is a big strategic asset. Look at what we did in Syria — it was quick and quiet and with no posturing. We just did it,” Jackson said. “We’re doing the exact opposite with North Korea. This is big and loud and slow.”
Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, said Sunday that it was “prudent” to have the aircraft carrier back in the region given North Korea’s “pattern of provocative behavior.”
But analysts like Jackson say they are still worried about the chance that Trump might feel emboldened after his sudden decision to strike Syria and miscalculate if North Korea does do something provocative that is not a nuclear test or long-range missile launch — perhaps along the lines of a more conventional attack, such as the sinking of a South Korean naval corvette in 2010that killed 46 sailors.
“Maybe Trump has some deep, dark red line that he hasn’t shown us,” he said. Jackson noted the difference between a preemptive strike — acting to stop an imminent threat, like the launch of an intercontinental missile that could hit the United States — and a preventive strike against a threat that was not imminent, an option that has been “historically unthinkable.”
“But it’s becoming more and more thinkable with North Korea because people are frustrated with the lack of options,” Jackson said.
As for North Korea’s actions, former British diplomat Graham warned against reading too much into Pyongyang’s latest “histrionics.”
“Their diplomacy relies on being threat-based,” he said. “That’s their only leverage.”