For all President Donald Trump’s recent “fire and fury” rhetoric towards North Korea, he has accurately assessed Kim Jong Un’s unwillingness to make good on a missile test targeting Guam, and called him on his bluff.
Though experts on diplomacy and North Korea knocked Trump for his rhetoric, which sounded a bit like the propaganda that comes from Pyongyang, Yun Sun, a senior associate at the Stimson Center, told Business Insider Trump’s bluster doesn’t change much in terms of “broad strategic issues.”
Essentially, North Korea said it would create a plan to fire test missiles towards the US territory of Guam, and then present that plan to Kim Jong Un in mid-August. Mid-August came, Kim received the plan, but has yet to act on it.
While Kim could potentially choose to act later, he faces an uphill battle successfully carrying out his show of force.
The Hwasong-12 missile North Korea intended to use has been tested just four times, with only one success in May. Experts contacted by Business Insider noted that North Korea’s statement was full of conditional clauses, and likely indicated he was bluffing.
Even if the missiles, reentry vehicles, and guidance systems worked perfectly, which is a stretch, Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis said Monday that the US would shoot down the incoming missiles. It seems unlikely that North Korea could satisfactorily carry out the Guam plan until its capability improves with more testing.
“If he does anything with respect to Guam or any place else that’s an American territory or an American ally, he will truly regret it, and he will regret it fast,” Trump said of Kim on Friday.
“They’re still threatening attacks on Guam, but taking a rather deescalatory tone,” said Sun. Indeed North Korea’s latest statement calls for the US to stop provocations, and accuses the US of pushing the Korean Peninsula to the brink of war.
Meanwhile, North Korea and the US are “maintaining a pretty regular and open channel of exchanges” through the “New York” channel, an unofficial line of communication between the two countries which gets shut off during more tense exchanges.
Importantly, North Korea has shown it has some understanding of Trump. Sun said that the real danger in Trump’s fiery rhetoric comes from the possibility that North Korea would take him seriously and launch a preemptive strike on the US or South Korea.
While Sun noted that Trump had degraded himself and the US by engaging in North Korea-like rhetoric, and dealt a blow to the credibility of his future threats, Trump’s bluster had its most major impact on domestic US politics, not on the military situation in the Koreas.
But North Korea’s current inability or inexperience in staging the kind of crippling attack it would seek to open a conflict with the US and its allies, combined with its overriding concern for regime security, seems to have halted the missile fires at Guam while it continues to consider diplomatic or deescalatory paths.
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