Bluster or legitimate threat, U.S. President Donald Trump’s latest castigation of North Korea has again left observers wondering if the leader will greenlight some kind of military action against the country in a bid to halt its seemingly inexorable march toward a credible nuclear strike capability.
Trump on Saturday issued his latest veiled threat to Pyongyang in a series of tweets deriding past U.S. leaders’ attempts to solve the intractable North Korean nuclear issue, saying that “only one thing” could bring the crisis to a close — an apparent allusion to military action.
“Presidents and their administrations have been talking to North Korea for 25 years, agreements made and massive amounts of money paid,” Trump tweeted. “Hasn’t worked, agreements violated before the ink was dry, makings fools of U.S. negotiators. Sorry, but only one thing will work!”
Asked by reporters to clarify his comments later Saturday while en route to a fundraiser, Trump said only: “You’ll figure that out pretty soon.”
The mercurial U.S. president’s remarks came two days after he cryptically said during a dinner with top American military brass that the meeting was “the calm before the storm.” He also refused to clarify that comment, saying only that “you’ll find out,” when asked what he meant. On Saturday, asked again about the storm remarks, Trump said there was “nothing to clarify.”
Trump has variously threatened to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea and to “totally destroy” the country of 25 million people if the United States is forced to defend itself or its allies, including Japan.
He has repeatedly said that all options — including military action — remain on the table for reining in its nuclear weapons ambitions. The U.S. president has also appeared to advocate regime change, saying that Kim and North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho, “won’t be around much longer” after Ri hinted at a possible nuclear weapons test over the Pacific Ocean.
Trump’s hard-line rhetoric and scornful disdain of dialogue with the North suggest that military action is likely on the president’s mind.
“The U.S. is confronting a ‘devils alternative’ — either accept North Korean nuclear weapons status, and watch the regional nonproliferation norms fall apart, and North Korea be more emboldened behind a nuclear shield — or risk a military confrontation,” Malcolm Davis, a senior defense analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said after Trump’s recent remarks.
“I don’t see the U.S. accepting North Korean nuclear weapons status, or accommodating Pyongyang,” Davis said. “I see war on the horizon — it’s a question of when and what context, and how does it start, and how does it end.”
Last week, Trump poured cold water on a suggestion that negotiations with the isolated country would be anything other than a distraction, saying that U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” a mocking reference to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The North conducted its sixth and largest nuclear test, purportedly of a hydrogen bomb, on Sept. 3, and has launched dozens of missiles this year — including two over Japan — as it moves closer to mastering the technology needed to reliably target the United States with a nuclear-tipped, long-range missile.
In July, it conducted two tests of an intercontinental ballistic missile that experts say is capable of striking a large chunk of the U.S.
A Russian lawmaker who visited the North last week was quoted Friday as saying that the country was preparing to test a long-range missile that it believes can reach the U.S. West Coast.
Pyongyang maintains that its nuclear and missile programs are crucial to the Kim regime’s survival and has ruled out denuclearization, a key condition for the U.S. in any talks with the North, calling its atomic arsenal a “war deterrent.”
Kim has vowed to continue his country’s policy of simultaneously developing the economy and nuclear weapons.
According to a report by the state-run Korean Central News Agency on Sunday, Kim pledged to ramp up his country’s nuclear drive during a plenary meeting of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea a day earlier. The meeting was the committee’s first since May last year.
He said the current situation has proved that the party was “absolutely right” to uphold the simultaneous development policy and that it should “invariably keep to this road in the future.”
While the Pentagon and key members of the Trump administration have worked to assuage fears by Asian allies nervous over both the breakneck speed of the North’s nuclear weapons advances and Trump’s bellicose words, they have also remained firm that military options are always available.
Any military moves would likely exist “along a spectrum of ‘flexible’ options — from striking North Korean missiles in the terminal phase of trajectory … or pre-emptive strikes while the missile is sitting on the launchpad or is in its early boost phase,” said Andrew O’Neil, an expert on North Korea and a professor at Griffith University in Australia.
“The U.S. would have very high confidence of success in the launchpad or boost-phase scenario because this is where missiles are most vulnerable to being taken out,” he said.
Washington, Tokyo or Seoul could also elect to try and intercept North Korean missiles, though failure would “punch a major hole in public confidence” of missile defense capabilities, O’Neil said.
But authorizing military action against North Korea raises the risk of escalation and miscalculation, including the potential use by the Kim regime of nuclear weapons against Japan, South Korea and possibly even the continental United States, with Kim viewing such a move as an attempt to wipe out his regime.
One estimate by the North Korea-watching 38 North website said that up to 2.1 million people in Tokyo and Seoul would die and another 7.7 million would be injured if Pyongyang attacked the two Asian capitals with nuclear weapons in response to U.S.-led military action.
The report, released Wednesday, was based on the North’s current estimated weapons technology and bomb strength and took into account the operational reliability of its missile launches as well as missile-defense systems in Japan and South Korea.
The estimate assumed that North Korea has 25 operational nuclear weapons with explosive yields of between 15 and 25 kilotons, and that it launches its entire arsenal at Tokyo and Seoul when attacked by the U.S.
According to the report, casualty figures would jump significantly if the North were to strike with weapons similar to the bomb it tested on Sept. 3, which the Japanese government said had an explosive yield of 160 kilotons — more than 10 times that of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in August 1945.
There is also the chance that the war of words by Trump, a former reality TV star, could be mere theatrics. However, this, too, runs the risk of endangering the U.S. and its allies by creating a situation “where at some point he will need to act decisively in order to maintain U.S. credibility,” making “it harder for the president to back away from military options,” said O’Neil.
Looming behind Trump’s heated rhetoric is also his record of skepticism toward U.S. alliances and his “America First” doctrine, which has created a combustible mix of confusion and apprehension in Tokyo and Seoul.
In August, Sen. Lindsey Graham said in an interview that Trump had told him that war between the U.S. and North Korea was imminent if Pyongyang continued to aim its long-range missiles at America. Graham, too, pushed the military option, saying that Trump had told him that while a conflict would kill scores, it would be “over there” in Northeast Asia.
“Trump may be getting advice that this is a feasible option for pushing Kim back into his box and demonstrating U.S. resolve internationally,” said O’Neil. “How Kim reacts is anyone’s guess, and once any shooting starts, no matter how contained, all bets will be off.”
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