A nuclear war between North Korea and the United States is not imminent, analysts said, but the inflammatory rhetoric on both sides is increasing the risk. They called on all parties to de-escalate.
North Korea’s army said in a statement distributed by state media Wednesday that it was examining a plan to use ballistic missiles to make an “enveloping fire” around Guam, a U.S. territory that is home to Andersen Air Force Base. The statement came a day after President Donald Trump warned North Korea against making more threats, saying, “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
What experts in South Korea, China and the U.S. had to say:
A North Korean attack or an American pre-emptive strike is unlikely, said John Delury, an associate professor of East Asian Studies at Yonsei University in Seoul.
He saw North Korea’s statement as a warning to Washington that its missiles could reach targets in the region, rather than one of an actual attack.
“Well, I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say if North Korea was planning some kind of pre-emptive or surprise attack on Guam, we would not be reading about it in North Korean media,” Delury said in an interview at his office. “Now that said, you do need to track their threats. And there are cases where they (have) made a specific threat and carried it out.”
A U.S. strike against North Korea would need the support of South Korea, he said, because the North would likely retaliate against the South and its 600,000 troops.
“It’s not something you can do without robust, full support from the South Korean government people, and there’s absolutely no sign that South Korea will support military options with North Korea,” Delury said.
Chinese government-backed scholars said Beijing is deeply concerned about the latest statements from Trump and North Korea. They hold the U.S. partly responsible, saying Trump’s heated rhetoric is fueling the flames.
Trump’s tough talk has contributed to an increase in animosity that is pushing the sides closer to armed conflict, said Cheng Xiaohe of the School of International Studies at Renmin University.
“If not kept well under control, this verbal spat could turn into a military clash,” he said, adding that China should dispatch diplomats to engage in shuttle diplomacy to bring the sides to the negotiating table.
China’s patience with North Korea, its onetime close ally, appears to be running thin: Beijing agreed to recent U.N. sanctions, despite potential losses to Chinese firms doing business with North Korea and fears over destabilizing the Pyongyang regime.
A top Chinese expert on North Korea said Pyongyang seemed to have been heartened by Washington’s failure to take firm measures in response to earlier actions.
“Trump said the U.S. would take tough measures if North Korea fired off missiles, but it did not,” said Zhang Liangui, a professor at the ruling Communist Party’s main training academy. “This might make North Korea think that’s just some verbal threat, so its attitude is getting tougher and tougher.”
The U.S., China and Russia need to come together to force the North to de-escalate, he said. “The big countries should not attack each other, but unite to better cooperate on maintaining the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
U.S. nuclear expert Siegfried Hecker, who has repeatedly visited North Korea’s nuclear facilities, said he doesn’t think North Korea currently has weapons systems for “enveloping fire” around Guam, as it threatened.
“I don’t believe they have the capability to do so yet, and besides, why would they want to commit suicide by attacking a remote target like Guam?” he said. “The real threat is stumbling into an inadvertent nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula by misunderstanding or miscalculation. Inflammatory rhetoric on both sides will make that more likely. It’s time to tone down the rhetoric.”
Hecker said North Korea does not have a sophisticated nuclear weapon like those of the U.S., Russia, Britain, China or France, the major nuclear superpowers.
“The shorter-range missile that can reach South Korea and Japan can accommodate larger nuclear warhead payloads,” he said. “Making the warhead sufficiently small, light and robust to survive an ICBM delivery is extremely challenging and still beyond North Korea’s reach.” The way to avert a war with North Korea is to have a conversation, and that’s not happening, Hecker said.
“Unfortunately, there seems to be no serious dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang, only threats,” he said.