When Kim Jong Un challenged US President Donald Trump on Tuesday by threatening to launch missiles at Guam in response to Trump’s promise of “fire and fury,” a single word from Trump could have brought a healthy portion of the US’s nuclear arsenal crashing down all over North Korea.
But Trump didn’t call for a strike, and he won’t. Neither will Kim Jong Un. Both men will get acceptable outcomes without firing a shot.
North Korea wants regime security and national power for its propaganda machines to celebrate. It has that.
North Korea has maintained a formidable concentration of artillery pointed at the 26 million or so residents of Seoul, South Korea for decades, and it’s deterred the US and provided the security they seek.
It deterred the US from invading the North when it walked away from negotiations on its nuclear program, through its six nuclear tests, and even after it twice demonstrated a missile that could likely kill Americans on the US mainland.
Four presidents of alternating parties have sat in the White House since the 1990s, looked to North Korea blazing a path towards nuclearization, and to some degree decided: “I can live with this.” With each passing president, North Korea’s deterrent grew stronger, and military action from the US less likely.
The US publicly states that it wants stability on the Korean Peninsula and to contain the spread of nuclear weapons, and North Korea clearly denies them that.
But the US has no effective political or military tools to achieve this goal. Those who push for preemptive strikes to promote stability in North Korea must now answer: “Preempt what? What stability?”
North Korea has had missiles that can deliver nuclear weapons for some time. A recently leaked Defence Intelligence Agency report says it has 60 or so nuclear devices.
The US’s real goal is to bolster South Korean defences and act like a tripwire force to make sure the North never invades the South. The North won’t invade South Korea, because it undermines its first and biggest strategic goal — regime security.
With South Korea and Japan firmly under the US’s nuclear umbrella, threats from North Korea just drive the US closer to its two closest Asian allies and provides the US with considerable framework to contain China, the emerging power set to surpass the US by 2030.
The US’s strong refusal to allowing North Korea to build nuclear weapons is not its final stance — it’s an opening position in a tough negotiation, a US defence official who works at a high level of nuclear strategy told Business Insider.
“You’re never going to voluntarily back away from that. You’re going to actively work to make sure they don’t get” an ICBM, said the official. “The North Koreans having nukes is a bad thing, and we don’t want it … But if we lose that one, we survive it.”
The final resting point of the North Korean conflict is a fully nuclear capable Kim regime being deterred by superior US power. Just like Russia and China are deterred from attacking the US despite differences.
North Korea has wisely called the US’s bluffs, and ignores threats of military action as it believes deeply in the credibility of its deterrent.
Most US presidents would chose to minimise the threat posed from North Korea, and to brush off its bombastic claims as propaganda depicting unlikely acts knowing they can ultimately live with a nuclear-armed North Korea. But Trump, embattled as in the press and in politics, may actually seek to highlight the threat from Pyongyang to present the US with a common enemy.
Small, conventional confrontations may happen. Unfortunately, we may see more Otto Warmbier situations come to pass, but even a tragic detention or death of a US citizen isn’t worth launching a nuclear war over, when the millions in South Korea and Japan would likely take the brunt of the impact.
A full on nuclear exchange, as much of the world feared could pass on Tuesday, would more likely result from a miscalculation or accident than a US resolved to prevent North Korea’s nuclearization.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Business Insider.