The war of words between North Korea and the U.S. escalated again Wednesday as North Korea announced it was preparing a plan to launch missiles at Guam, a U.S. territory 2,100 miles south of Pyongyang. This latest provocation came a day after President Donald Trump pledged that further threats from Pyongyang would be met with “fire and fury the likes of which the world has never seen.” While the situation is serious, you probably don’t need to start digging a bomb shelter just yet.

“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” – President Donald Trump

In a typically bombastic statement to North Korea’s state news agency Wednesday, General Kim Rak Gyom, commander of North Korea’s strategic forces, mocked Mr. Trump’s fire and fury remark, saying “sound dialogue is not possible with such a guy bereft of reason and only absolute force can work on him.” North Korea also said its military is “seriously examining [a] plan for an enveloping strike at Guam through simultaneous fire of four Hwasong-12 intermediate-range strategic ballistic rockets in order to interdict the enemy forces on major military bases on Guam and to signal a crucial warning to the U.S.” The threat was unusually specific, noting that the missiles will fly over Japan before landing in the sea near the island. The plans will be presented to Kim Jong Un by mid-August, who would then have the final word on executing it. Guam is home to several thousand U.S. troops and Anderson Air Force Base, an important forward-deployed bomber base. B-2 bombers have been operating out of Anderson AFB recently in response to North Korean missile tests.

David vs. Goliath

North Korea’s response was a direct challenge to President Donald Trump, but not a particularly surprising one. North Korean propaganda is deeply rooted in a mythology that portrays the Kim regime as the David to America’s Goliath. In light of that, Kim cannot afford to be seen as backing down in the face of President Trump’s threat. It is likely that North Korea’s statement is intended for domestic audiences, but could also be calculated to brush back President Trump.

President Trump’s “fire and fury” statement was unusually blunt and apparently improvised, according to media reports citing Trump advisors. Administration officials, notably by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, have sought to downplay worries that Trump’s remarks represent a shift in strategy or that the White House was contemplating imminent military action.

“Nothing that I have seen and nothing that I know of would indicate that the situation has dramatically changed in the last twenty-four hours,” Tillerson told reporters in a rare press conference Wednesday morning. “And I think Americans should sleep well at night and have no concerns about this particular rhetoric of the past few days. . . . What the President was just reaffirming is that the United States has the capability to fully defend itself from any attack, and its allies, and we will do so.”

The effort by Trump administration officials to tamp down Mr. Trump’s statement might be read in Pyongyang as indication that the President overreached in his comments. By ratcheting up the rhetoric, Kim might strengthen the arguments of those within the administration, like Tillis and Mattis, urging a more cautious line.

A War No One Wants

Rhetoric not withstanding, neither the U.S. nor North Korea want a military confrontation. It would be devastating for both countries, but most of all for North Korea. U.S. military capabilities substantially outmatch those of North Korea. America’s precision guided weapons and technologically advanced command and control systems, integrated air, sea, and ground war-fighting abilities, and modern weaponry would devastate North Korea’s large but unsophisticated military.

Photo published in March by North Korean state newspaper the Rodong Sinmun showing Kim Jung Un with what appear to be a “miniaturized” nuclear device adjacent to a Hwasong-13 (KN-08) ballistic missile that could be used to deliver a weapon.

Still, North Korea is now closer than ever to being capable of reaching the U.S. mainland with its nuclear weapons. According to a Washington Post report this week, a new U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency assessment says that North Korea has developed a nuclear warhead small enough to fit atop an intercontinental ballistic missile. Coming on the heals of last month’s tests of North Korean missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland, this is a worrying development. Even if North Korea doesn’t yet present a credible threat to the U.S. mainland, it will soon. It can confidently reach Seoul, Tokyo, and US military facilities on Guam with it’s short and intermediate range missiles already.

The Nuclear Threat

While North Korea has made substantial advances in its nuclear program, they do not yet have a credible ability to actually deliver a bomb to the United States. North Korea is capable of inflicting substantial damage, but their missiles are unreliable and the explosive power of their nuclear devices is relatively small by the standards of American and Russian weapons.

Photo by CSIS
Hwasong-14 launch, July 4, 2017.

North Korea has managed to test two Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) since the beginning of last month. Both are capable of reaching at least some parts of the U.S. The second test demonstrated a missile that could reach all the way to New York, Chicago, perhaps Washington, DC. But, there are serious questions about the reliability of the Hwasong-14 system.

Significantly, the missile’s reentry vehicle, which protects the warhead from the heat and pressure generated as it reenters earth’s atmosphere, may have failed during the most recent test July 28. A video captured by a Japanese weather camera seems to show the reentry vehicle breaking up on reentry. This suggests that the system may not yet be able to deliver a nuclear device that arrives intact. However, reentry systems are far from the most daunting technical challenges of ICBM design.

What North Korea Wants

Actually launching a nuclear weapon at the mainland United States would be suicide. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is so determined to develop a nuclear capability because he calculates that it will provide an insurance policy that guarantees his regime’s survival. Yet, actually using nukes would guarantee its demise. There are no bunkers deep enough to protect Kim and his leaders from the certain American retaliatory strike. Kim has somewhere between 30 to 60 nuclear devices to America’s 6,800. If North Korea launched a nuclear weapon at a U.S. city, America would not rest until it wiped Kim and everyone he knows off the face of the earth. A North Korean nuclear attack is unlikely, because for North Korea, it would defeat the point of having nuclear weapons in the first place.

All this posturing should be seen as jockeying for position rather than a prelude to war.

Let’s all keep our heads. This is serious, but it’s not time to panic — at least not yet. All this posturing should be seen as jockeying for position rather than a prelude for war. Kim Jong Un wants to impress his people with military strength and global importance, and leverage his status as a nuclear power to boost his standing on the world stage.

North Korean propaganda has long portrayed the country as an enviable world power. And it goes to great lengths to prop up this facade. North Korea’s government built a massive museum into the side of a mountain to house trinkets foreign dignitaries have given Korea’s rulers over the years. A basketball signed by Michael Jordan from Madeline

International Friendship Exhibition (Credit: Taylor Griffin)

Albright, a stereo system from a Japanese electronics company executive, and a skinned bear from Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu are among the assorted junk exhibited as priceless treasures given by world leaders in tributes to the greatness of North Korea’s regime. The death of Kim Il Sung, the country’s founder, was said to have been mourned with wailing grief by nations across the globe.

ALl of which is nonsense. But, Kim Jong Un hopes to use his nuclear arsenal to compel the respect from the world its leaders claim they already have.

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