San Jose, California, United States— Threatening language between the US and North Korea is flaring this week. After President Donald Trump vowed to respond with “fire and fury” if Pyongyang continued to threaten the US, the North’s military said it is finalizing a plan to fire four midrange missiles to hit waters near the strategic US territory of Guam.
Below, North Korea experts reached Wednesday in the US discuss the gravity of the moment and where both countries, and the world, could go from here:
Closer to the brink, Talks essential
Srinivasan Sitaraman, political scientist at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts:
Despite Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s efforts to play down Trump’s statements on unleashing “fire and fury” on the North, “it seems that Mr. Trump either deliberately or inadvertently threatened nuclear annihilation of North Korea. One of the consequences of this war of words and the associated escalation postures is that it would be very hard for both the United States and North Korea to back down after having quickly pushed each other close to the brink.
“Despite this escalation, it is my belief that the possibility of a nuclear exchange, although higher than normal, is still below the threshold of actual usage…. It is absolutely essential to find ways to bring North Korea to the negotiating table and engage them in talks and remove the cloud of nuclear war that is hanging over the world. Getting the North Koreans to the negotiating table is not something that could be achieved in the short term, but the Six Parties (the US, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China and Russia) and the UN Security Council must work towards laying the groundwork towards this objective.”
Playing into Kim’s hands?
Tony Talbott, interim executive director of the University of Dayton Human Rights Center in Ohio: “Both leaders are primarily speaking to their domestic audiences. Trump wants or needs to appear strong to fit his image and previous rhetoric. Kim needs to maintain the illusion of him being the only possible savior of his country and people — an island of virtue adrift in a sea of brutal enemies. With China and Russia agreeing to the (UN Security Council) sanctions against DPRK (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the North’s official name), Kim truly looks and feels alone and will increase his strident rhetoric. Engaging in this theater with him, escalating the intensity and threat of our responses, will be detrimental and actually plays into Kim’s hands, regarding maintaining control of the regime.”
‘No good military options’
Raymond Kuo, political scientist at Fordham University in New York: “There are no good military options that wouldn’t result in deaths of thousands in the first day, and even then it might not eliminate DPRK capability.”
He said the world “may ultimately have to rely on mutually assured destruction — that nukes self-deter and no one goes to nuclear war. But that will also create great instability on a conventional and unconventional warfare level. Ironically, it may be Trump that escalates and causes war.”
Guam attack unlikely; tweets ‘irresponsible’
Margaret E. Kosal, director of the Sam Nunn Security Program and Military Fellows Program at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta: Could North Korea truly attack Guam? “It’s likely no. No one outside of a small number of people in the DPRK can know for sure. Nonetheless, that capability is beyond anything that they have demonstrated thus far. Guam is a non-credible threat; Seoul and Japan are a credible threat.”
She called Trump’s comments on Twitter “irresponsible. It does nothing to help the US or our allies. It increases instability. Our diplomats need to be empowered to do their jobs.”
A negotiating tactic?
Tyler White, an assistant professor of political science at University of Nebraska-Lincoln: “Trump’s statements seem to mirror Kim’s language. Is he trying to talk to Kim in words he understands? Is this just the way Trump talks? Is Trump trying to be unpredictable and thus change China’s calculation and raise the cost for supporting Kim? It is honestly hard to say. But the rest of the national security establishment in the US seems to be walking Trump’s rhetoric back a bit today.
“The hope is that Kim feels compelled to come back to the negotiating table. One possible way to do that would be to make him think that the US is feeling less constrained to act. That of course carries big risks that he might pre-emptively strike. However, it seems clear to me that Kim’s nuclear program is a tool for keeping his regime in power and engaging in a nuclear exchange with the US will be an existential issue for him. So I doubt Kim will be inclined to strike first. If that is Trump’s assessment as well he might simply be attempting to create uncertainty in Kim and hopefully get him to start negotiating.”