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How a Korean war could start

Impulsive US president, macho North Korean leader and sensational coverage providing ingredients

| North Korea
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A U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon arrives at Kunsan Air Base, South Korea on August 3.   © Reuters

On Aug. 8, the Washington Post reported that the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency had concluded for the first time that North Korea was now able to place a miniaturized nuclear warhead on top of its new intercontinental ballistic missiles. The article sent U.S. cable news channels into a frenzy, with ensuing reports about how Hawaii and points east could soon be subject to atomic Armageddon. The wall-to-wall coverage prompted U.S. President Donald Trump, whose actions often seemed guided by what appears on cable news, to threaten North Korea with "fire and fury and, frankly, power, the likes of which the world has never seen before."

The episode illustrates how media hype and an impulsive TV-driven president confronting a young, macho leader in Pyongyang can create a dangerous mixture that limits the possibilities of finding a diplomatic solution to dealing with North Korea's nuclear weapon and missile program. It also reveals disagreements within the West's intelligence and scientific communities about how far along North Korea has come in becoming a second-tier nuclear state like Israel, India and Pakistan.

There is little doubt that Pyongyang is aggressively pursuing a nuclear and missile program. This was made clear by its first tests of two ICBMs in July. The second test appeared to confirm that North Korea could launch a missile that reaches at least the U.S. West Coast.

But doubts remain whether Pyongyang actually has the capability to incinerate a U.S. city like Los Angeles with a nuclear warhead that would be equivalent in power to the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima or Nagasaki in 1945.

Experts have debated whether North Korea can produce a warhead small and light enough to fit on an ICBM, even though this seems already possible for its shorter-range ballistic missiles that can reach South Korea or Japan. Moreover, any North Korean ICBM would need a reentry vehicle to protect the warhead from burning up in the atmosphere as it approached its target at rapid speeds.

The Washington Post report reflected the more alarmist assessment within the U.S. intelligence community about Pyongyang's capability to strike the U.S. The DIA has taken the lead on this issue. Analysts associated with the U.S. Defense Department have been saying for the last few months that North Korea's missiles have the capability to reach New York, that Pyongyang has succeeded in nuclear warhead miniaturization and that its nuclear weapons arsenal may be much larger than 10 to 20 bombs that most analysts believe it holds. These views were reflected in the DIA assessment. The Washington Post also reported in late July that the DIA had concluded that North Korea would have a fully functioning ICBM by next year, two years earlier than previously predicted.

It is important to point out here that it is uncertain how firmly the rest of U.S. intelligence community supports the DIA assessment. Moreover, Trump was presumably briefed on the DIA conclusions in July, but made no public threat at the time.

History lessons

Underlying discussions in the U.S. about the North Korean nuclear and missile program is the assumption that Pyongyang is "mad, bad and dangerous" and is likely to strike at the U.S. once it gets its hands on a workable ICBM. Similar fears accompanied the arrival of the Soviet Union and China as nuclear powers during the Cold War. The nature of their totalitarian societies tended to obscure the fact that they had rational reasons to obtain nuclear arsenals -- but not to use them unless provoked. The same could be said for North Korea.

Pulverized by American aerial bombing during the Korean war as well as being threatened with atomic warfare by U.S. presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, North Korea's sense of living under an existential threat has never disappeared.

It sits at the conjunction of four great powers -- the U.S., China, Russia and Japan.

Pyongyang views nuclear weapons as a deterrent against hostile powers to ensure its survival. But it also at times has offered to put the nuclear program on hold to pursue the normalization of relations with the U.S. and Japan.

During the Cold War, as a small power sandwiched between Soviet Union and China, North Korea played them off against each other -- a typical small power strategy to try to maintain its autonomy. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 put an end to this balancing act. To avoid falling under the sway of a newly dominant China, North Korea sought to forge relationships with Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul as a counterweight. But these efforts largely failed, most notably when the U.S. President George W. Bush abandoned a freeze on North Korea's nuclear program that had been negotiated under his predecessor, Bill Clinton.

Since then, the U.S. has indicated it will not establish diplomatic ties with North Korea until Pyongyang starts to curb its nuclear and missile program. Washington has also applied pressure by increasing the scale of its military exercises with South Korea. This show of force, which has been interpreted in Pyongyang as targeting its leadership, has only spurred North Korea to redouble its efforts to develop an effective nuclear deterrent that can reach the U.S. mainland.

Pyongyang is now unlikely to give up its nuclear and missile programs unless a means is found to firmly guarantee its security. Even for a freeze, there would have to be some sort of regional security arrangement and an end to the hostile relationship with the U.S., possibly symbolized by a peace treaty that formally ends the Korean war.

The idea that North Korea is planning to pre-emptively attack Guam, where U.S. B-1 nuclear bombers are based, or the U.S. West Coast makes little sense since it would be a suicidal act. Even if North Korea has 30 or even 60 nuclear bombs as claimed by DIA, the U.S. has almost 7,000.

Trump's inflammatory rhetoric against North Korea has raised the risks of miscalculation by both sides. His "fire and fury" statement has undercut recent comments by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that Washington does not seek regime change in Pyongyang and that the U.S. is not North Korea's enemy, as he sought to defuse the nuclear crisis through diplomatic means. After Trump's statement, Tillerson reaffirmed that "we have a very active, ongoing diplomatic effort, most of which is behind the scenes because that's where diplomacy is most effective."

But Trump, who favors quick results, may be signaling that he is losing patience in finding a peaceful solution to a problem that has existed for the last 25 years.

Pyongyang also shows no sign of backing down as shown by its threat to strike the waters around Guam with medium-range ballistic missiles to underscore its readiness to attack American military bases on Guam if the U.S. launches a military attack. That demonstration could quickly escalate into a military conflict if the U.S. uses anti-missile batteries to shoot down the North Korean missiles.

The next few weeks are likely to be fraught with other conflict triggers. The U.S. is scheduled to hold joint military exercises with South Korea from Aug. 23, which will extend through September. Pyongyang always regards these exercises as preparations for a possible invasion. Meanwhile, there are a couple of upcoming holidays in North Korea that Pyongyang normally uses as occasions to demonstrate its military might by staging nuclear or missiles tests.

The clearest sign of a military conflict would be if the U.S. orders the evacuation of the 130,000 American civilians living in South Korea. Pyongyang could view this move as the start of the U.S. preparing to go to war and conduct a pre-emptive strike in response.

The last time an evacuation was considered was in 1994 when Clinton contemplated bombing North Korea's nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. That crisis ended with a deal freezing North Korea's nuclear development program. But given the unpredictability of the current occupant of the White House, no one should expect that a similar resolution will be achieved this time.

John Merrill is a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, and former head of the Northeast Asia Division in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the U.S. State Department. John Burton, former Seoul bureau chief for the Financial Times, is a Washington, D.C.-based writer and editor.

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