4 North Korea Flashpoints That Could Trigger Nuclear War Later This Month
President Trump’s threat to deliver "fire and fury" to North Korea has not only set his own Cabinet scrambling to clarify what he means, but it has also increased the odds of miscalculation that could lead to a catastrophic military conflict.
While the White House insists the administration is speaking with one voice, the world is hearing three different messages as captured by this New York Times video: the aggressive message of Trump, which emphasizes the punishment North Korea could face (“like the world has never seen”); the restrained message of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (“we do not seek to be a threat to them”); and the somber message of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis (any war would be “catastrophic”).
While Trump’s tough talk appeals to the president’s core supporters, it has sown confusion among friends and enemies alike about what the United States will do in a deepening crisis.
Tillerson and Mattis tried to clarify the haze of uncertainty with a piece for the Wall Street Journal (and the White House website) on Monday. While announcing a new policy of “strategic accountability,” they also added a diplomatic message unmentioned by Trump:
The object of our peaceful pressure campaign is the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. The U.S. has no interest in regime change or accelerated reunification of Korea. We do not seek an excuse to garrison U.S. troops north of the Demilitarized Zone. We have no desire to inflict harm on the long-suffering North Korean people, who are distinct from the hostile regime in Pyongyang.
So the U.S. government's mixed messages persist, and with them four dangers.
1. A Blurry Red Line
The trouble started when Trump seemed to draw a red line for what is unacceptable to him, by saying “North Korea best not make any threats to the United States.” But when North Korea responded by making a new threat to the United States—that it would, if attacked, strike U.S. military forces based on Guam—Trump did not make good on his pledge. He merely doubled down on his words, saying they might not have been strong enough.
Trump’s rhetoric may have only confused his primary audience, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
“Trump’s remarks were not only unhelpful because they were filled with bombast,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in a phone interview. “They are also unclear about what the North Koreans are not supposed to do."
Kim may conclude that Trump’s threats are, as he said last week, a "load of nonsense" and decide to issue another one, while Trump may conclude that any such threat requires a military response, lest he be seen as not enforcing his red line.
2. B-1 Overflights
The Trump administration has stepped up flights of the U.S. Air Force’s supersonic B-1 bombers over the Korean Peninsula. While the Obama administration ordered overflights in response to specific North Korean actions, Trump has made them more frequent and regular.
The planes, stationed at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam, are key to the Pentagon’s plans for a preemptive strike on North Korea, according to current and former officials who spoke with NBC News last week. The B-1 carries the Air Force's largest conventional bombs, but not nuclear weapons.
The North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs has pledged to respond to any “preventive” U.S. attack with its full nuclear arsenal.
“The U.S. should remember, however, that once there observed a sign of action for ‘preventive war’ from the U.S., the army of the DPRK will turn the U.S. mainland into the theatre of a nuclear war before the inviolable land of the DPRK turns into the one,” reads one statement. “We do not hide that we already have in full readiness the diversified strategic nuclear strike means which have the U.S. mainland in our striking range.”
So, if a B-1 overflight, intended only as a show of force, was mistaken as a “sign of action" for the preventive war that Trump is threatening, North Korea might escalate to war footing, which could in turn provoke further U.S. escalation.
North Korea’s threat to test missiles near Guam illustrates just how threatening Kim finds the B-1 overflights in the current atmosphere.
The western Pacific Island, a territory of the United States that has a population of 162,000 people, including 13,000 U.S. military personnel and their families, had not previously been targeted by North Korea, at least not publicly.
While the Pyongyang regime has long indulged in belligerent rhetoric toward its enemies, the plan announced last week—to fire four Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missiles toward Guam—was both unusual and unusually specific.
North Korea has long used its missile tests to demonstrate its capabilities to the outside world without fear of retaliation. Kim may believe that the waters around Guam are outside Trump’s red line while Trump may believe that they are inside.
4. Military Exercises
On August 21, U.S. and South Korean forces will engage in 10 days of previously schedule military exercises, involving tens of thousands of troops, and thousands of aircraft and ships around the Korean Peninsula.
Past exercises, intended to deter a North Korean attack, “are believed to have included 'decapitation strikes'—trial operations for an attempt to kill Kim Jong-un and his top generals,” according to the Guardian.
The timing is “doubly concerning,” says the British news site, as it is within a timeframe in which Pyongyang says it will be ready to fire the Hwasong-12 missiles toward Guam.
The more realistic a military exercise, the more destabilizing it may be. In 1983, the military command of the Soviet Union became convinced that a NATO military exercise called Able Archer was, in fact, a ruse designed to conceal a pre-emptive first nuclear war. In response, the Soviets began planning for a countdown to a nuclear first strike by NATO on Eastern Europe.
The first comprehensive study of the incident, Able Archer 83: The Secret History of the NATO Exercise that Almost Caused a Nuclear War, shows that danger of war through misperception was much greater than the CIA and the Pentagon understood at the time.
The lesson for avoiding nuclear war, writes Tom Blanton, editor of the book and director of the non-profit National Security Archive in Washington, is “to put ourselves in the shoes of our adversaries—what do our actions look like to them? What motivations must they have? What fears do they feel? Empathy doesn’t mean identifying with the adversary, no indeed, but understanding them. And ourselves.”
None of which the president of the United States seems inclined to do.