In the span of a few hours Tuesday, the threat of a nuclear war ratcheted up several notches. First, Donald Trump vowed to unleash “fire and fury” on North Korea if the country keeps threatening the U.S. Then, as if on cue, Kim Jong Un responded with a statement saying his military was “carefully examining” a missile strike on Guam, a U.S. territory in the Pacific that’s home to an Air Force base.
The last time the U.S. appeared this close to war with North Korea was 23 years ago. Back then, a Pentagon plan to send cruise missiles and stealth fighters to strike a North Korean nuclear reactor forced Pyongyang to the negotiating table. Now, as the war of words between the two countries escalates to unprecedented levels, experts aren’t convinced a similar threat today would intimidate the Kim regime.
Kim will stop at nothing to achieve his goal of building a nuclear missile arsenal, analysts told VICE News, predicting the North Korean leader will continue to flout U.N. sanctions and provoke Trump in an increasingly vitriolic war of words. His reasoning is remarkably straightforward: Having nukes gives the regime leverage and a sense of protection.
“The end goal for North Korea is quite simple,” Scott Seaman, Asia director and lead Korean analyst at the Eurasia Group, told VICE News. “It’s regime survival, and the only way that Kim Jong Un feels he will survive is if he can acquire these ballistic missiles that are capable of carrying a warhead to the continental U.S.”
Multiple experts echoed Seaman’s analysis and agreed that Trump’s bellicose rhetoric is only inflaming an already tense situation.
“Much of the [Trump] rhetoric about military actions or war with North Korea actually serves the interest of North Korea rather than U.S. interests,” said Lisa Collins, a fellow with the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The more Kim can create the perception of an external threat, the more he can tell his own people they have to work harder on nuclear weapons.”
“[North Korea] has to be uber-bombastic, it always has to be on the attack.”
A middle ground between all-out war and sanctions is available through direct diplomacy, experts believe, but there is little sign that either side is willing to come to the table.
“With Washington speaking with several voices which say different things, the chance of backing sanctions with dialogue seems worryingly remote, despite the greater importance of such an endeavor,” James Hannah, assistant head of the Asia program at U.K.-based think tank Chatham House, told VICE News.
Previous U.S. presidents have faced similar threats from Pyongyang, but the big difference now is that North Korea poses a credible nuclear threat, having successfully tested a missile capable of sending a warhead to the West Coast. Further, the latest round of sanctions may be celebrated as a diplomatic victory, but they aren’t likely to have much impact on Kim’s regime, which through black market trade, hacking enterprises, and clever financing, is better prepared to weather the economic punishment than previous regimes.
Trump’s current strategy of sanctions and bluster will likely only help Kim in the short term, the experts said, noting that the “fire and fury” threat could stoke North Korea’s hatred of Washington and be used to justify its defiance of the collective international community.
That said, it remains unlikely that Kim would attempt a preemptive strike against the U.S. since it would almost certainly result in his regime’s total annihilation. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson played down Tuesday’s escalation of tensions and Secretary of Defense James Mattis urged North Korea’s leadership to “cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people,” but analysts remain concerned about the possibility of an “accidental war.”
David Pressman, a former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. for special political affairs during the Obama administration, told VICE News that the Trump administration’s lack of a coherent message makes it difficult to judge how Kim will react to Trump’s unpredictable and inflammatory statements.
“I worry that President Trump’s recent statement was not subjected to the kind of internal deliberation and planning that, generally, a statement threatening the use of nuclear weapons should be,” Pressman said. The “fire and fury” line was improvised and caught his aides by surprise, according to the New York Times.
On the North Korean side, Jasper Kim, director of the Center for Conflict Management at Ewha Women’s University in Seoul, told VICE News that the regime feels the need to constantly raise the stakes when it comes to the war of words with the U.S.
“[North Korea] has to be uber-bombastic; it always has to be on the attack,” Kim said. “Not militarily, per se, but in terms of the propaganda war, military maneuverings, and all these other derivative forms of military prowess.”
“The end goal for North Korea is quite simple.”
During the Korean War, from 1950 to 1953, the U.S. dropped some 635,000 tons of explosives on North Korea, including 32,557 tons of napalm. In 1984, one Air Force general estimated the U.S. had “killed off 20 percent of the population.” North Koreans are frequently reminded of the devastation, and Kim uses it to justify his hardline stance against the U.S.
North Korea’s continued provocations have already led to more sanctions, which won’t immediately affect the elites in Pyongyang but could cause shortages of food and key goods for the rest of the country’s citizens, further fomenting a hatred of the U.S.
For Kim, having nukes is the ultimate bargaining chip: The powerful weapons give him credibility and power when dealing with superpowers who have until now viewed the country with contempt.
“Kim sees nuclear weapons status as a guarantee of being left alone, but also as a means by which to extract concessions in any subsequent negotiations,” said Hannah, the expert from Chatham House. “The higher their capability the more they can lobby for the removal of sanctions and even extract concessions of support and durability.”