A new round of blustery threats emerged over North Korea on Tuesday, as President Trump warned that any military action by Pyongyang “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen,” and North Korea’s military signaled it was “carefully examining” a plan to attack Guam.
What could possibly go wrong?
Diplomats lately have been warning of a chain of events they fear could escalate into a deadly new Korean War.
Threats and bluster are part of a familiar and long-running game of brinkmanship between Washington and Pyongyang, but this time, it has been made more dangerous by two volatile new players: Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump.
Kim, the current incarnation of North Korea’s ruling dynasty, is in his early 30s — a callow youth and a less predictable character than his father, Kim Jong Il. In little more than five years in office, he has executed his uncle, ordered the assassination of his half brother and redoubled efforts to develop a nuclear weapon capable of reaching the United States.
Then, there is President Trump, often prone to impulse and almost always undiplomatic, only 7 months in office and, like other new presidents, still learning on the job. Through his tweets and his words, Trump has promised to stop North Korea’s progress toward becoming a nuclear power.
“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” Trump told reporters in New Jersey on Tuesday. “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
“The most unpredictable part of this story is Trump, not North Korea. North Korea is doing what it always does,” said Sue Mi Terry, a former CIA analyst who specializes in North Korea. She believes that Kim Jong Un, like his father, is essentially a rational player who will not launch a suicidal attack that would bring about the end of his government. “There is a lot of brinksmanship going on, but people can miscalculate,” she warned. “And things could go very, very wrong.”
What might North Korea do?
North Korea has recently been conducting tests of its intercontinental ballistic missiles, and U.S. officials now believe the secretive country has developed the capability of loading a miniaturized nuclear warhead onto its missiles.
Another nuclear test could also be in the works. North Korea has conducted five nuclear tests since 2006, each of them followed by howls of indignation from the international community and fresh U.N. Security Council sanctions.
How would the U.S. respond?
The Trump administration has been signaling that this time it will respond forcefully to another North Korean nuclear test. Officials have disparaged the Obama administration’s policy toward North Korea, a strategy known as “strategic patience.” No one knows whether Trump would take military action. U.S. intelligence officials have in the past signaled they might be prepared to launch an airstrike with conventional weapons, mostly likely Tomahawk cruise missiles.
Exactly what the U.S. would strike is unclear. North Korea’s nuclear tests are conducted underground, and there is no obvious target that wouldn’t have the risk of nuclear fallout. Analysts say it would be possible to retaliate through other means, such as attacking North Korea’s submarine fleet off its east coast, something that could be accomplished more discreetly through sabotage than airstrikes.
“Trump needs to make sure he does something different from Obama in response to a nuclear test. They can’t just go through the motions at the U.N. Security Council, but they have to be sure they don’t pursue a unilateral response that backfires or fails,” said Scott Snyder of the Council on Foreign Relations.
How might North Korea respond if the U.S. takes military action?
Given all its rhetoric, North Korea would feel hard-pressed not to retaliate against a U.S. strike. “Our revolutionary strong army is keenly watching every move by enemy elements with our nuclear sight focused on the U.S. invasionary bases not only in South Korea and the Pacific operation theater but also in the U.S. mainland,” North Korea’s official Rodong Sinmun newspaper warned Tuesday.
Boasting aside, it is unclear whether North Korea could target the U.S. mainland, but 28,000 U.S. troops in South Korea and 50,000 in Japan are within striking distance. The most exposed are those stationed near the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea. The South Korean capital of Seoul lies only 30 miles away, making it vulnerable to conventional artillery dug into the mountainsides near the DMZ.
“There would be a great temptation for the North Koreans to throw a few artillery shells into Seoul. They might not be able to flatten the place, but they could do a lot of damage,” said Carl Baker, a retired Air Force officer who was stationed in South Korea, now with the Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu.
Military analysts have no doubt that combined U.S. and South Korean forces could beat North Korea. But a wounded North Korean government could punish its adversaries with what strategists sometimes refer to as the last lash of the dragon’s tail.
During a showdown with North Korea in 1994, the Clinton administration weighed airstrikes to prevent North Korea from reprocessing fuel rods from its Yongbyon nuclear complex. The plan was scuttled after computer simulations showed that up to 1 million people could be killed by North Korean retaliation. The casualties could be even larger today because of new real estate developments in the northern suburbs of Seoul, Baker said.
How would Asian neighbors react if the U.S. struck North Korea?
China would vociferously protest any U.S. airstrikes against North Korea, its traditional communist ally, with the same type of language that Russia used in complaining about the American attack against its ally, the Syrian government. Analysts do not believe that China would directly step into the conflict today as it did during the 1950-1953 Korean War, when Mao Tse-tung sent troops across the Yalu River to fight for North Korea. But Chinese leaders almost certainly would position themselves in a more confrontational position. “I would expect they would move forces toward the border to prevent North Koreans from fleeing into China and to prevent the Americans from becoming more adventurous,” Baker said.
How would military action against North Korea be received in South Korea and Japan?
The U.S. allies of South Korea and Japan might be angrier than China if the United States took unilateral action because they stand to bear the brunt of North Korean retaliation.
Trump’s strong stance toward North Korea could alienate South Koreans. “The safety of South Korea is as important as that of the United States. There should never be a preemptive strike without South Korean consent,” South Korean President Moon Jae-in said in a Facebook post before his election in May. Moon also has said he would try to solve the problem by heading to Pyongyang, not Washington.
Robert Gallucci, a professor at Georgetown University who was with the Clinton administration in 1994 when it considered striking North Korea, said the U.S. would have to spend months preparing its allies to defend themselves and their civilian populations before taking what in military parlance is called “kinetic action.”
The question, he said at a Council on Foreign Relations discussion last month in New York, boils down to this: “Are we ready to go to war? And if we’re not, what the hell are we talking about?”
If we don’t want to go to war, what other options are there?
Trump has said he offered Chinese President Xi Jinping better terms on trade if China would do more to rein in North Korea. Almost all of North Korea’s fuel oil, hard currency, construction material and imported food passes through the 850-mile border between the two countries. The United States also could apply pressure on China with so-called secondary sanctions, which would target Chinese companies and banks that deal with North Korea.
And then, the Trump administration could consider direct negotiations with the North Koreans. During the campaign, Trump offhandedly raised the idea of inviting Kim over for a hamburger. A North Korean delegation was supposed to come to New York last month for back-channel talks, but after the assassination of Kim’s half brother, Kim Jong Nam, in Malaysia, the visa for the head of the delegation was abruptly canceled.
If there ever was a hamburger, it was taken off the table.
Aug. 8, 4:35 p.m.: This article was updated with new statements from Trump and the North Korean military.
9:15 a.m.: This article was updated with additional statements and analysis.
This article was originally published April 14 at 5 a.m.