There are several additional questions to assess and potential signals to watch as we monitor the escalating rhetorical and military tensions between North Korea and the United States.
1. Why make the threat?
North Korea's revelation of its operational plan for Guam could simply be a rhetorical response to U.S. talk about preventive action
, fire and fury, or "separating" Kim Jong Un from the North's nuclear weapons. However, we cannot simply assume the North is only about bluster. Pyongyang may be signaling to the United States that it does have realistic options and capabilities that would increase the likelihood and cost of conflict. Such warnings of expanding missile launches may also enhance the drive by Seoul, Beijing and Moscow to stem any U.S. move toward war and instead push for dialogue with the North. Beijing has suggested several times a dual freeze plan to ease tensions: The United States would temporarily halt major military exercises in South Korea and in return the North would stop its missile tests. While the United States does not appear amenable to such a temporary suspension, South Korea may be tempted to explore such an option, if it can reduce the likelihood of conflict on the peninsula.
2. What are the risks to such a launch for Pyongyang?
Were Pyongyang to launch a salvo of four missiles toward Guam (with the intent of landing near, not hitting, the island), there are several possible risks. Given the track record of the Hwasong-12, one or more of the missiles could fail, demonstrating the weakness of the North's claimed deterrent. A failed missile could fall on Japan during overflight, though Pyongyang may have intentionally listed the single-stage Hwasong-12 as opposed to a dual-stage missile to reduce the likelihood of debris falling on Japan during a successful launch. The U.S. and/or Japan could decide to engage the missiles with their missile defense system and, if fully successful, demonstrate the weakness of the north's deterrent. The North's missiles could overfly their targeted water and actually strike Guam, triggering a military response from the United States. While a completely successful launch could alter the perception of Pyongyang's capability and seriousness, any of the failure scenarios not only could set back Pyongyang's deterrence but also trigger the conflict that Pyongyang is seeking to avoid.
3. What would be the risks of the United States and/or Japan attempting to intercept a North Korea launch?
The United States and Japan would first consider which flight path would constitute a threat requiring a missile defense response. This may be a 12-nautical-mile ring around Guam, or certain flight paths over heavily populated parts of Japan. Once a "must intercept" locus is identified, it would be a matter of estimating the likely flight paths from North Korea, and ensuring sea- and land-based assets are positioned and prepared. Should the United States choose not to intercept the missiles (assuming they are determined NOT likely to hit Guam), it could then make an even stronger case to China and the international community that Pyongyang is an active threat and needs to be reined in immediately. Pyongyang would clearly be seen as the aggressor and escalator. Shooting down the missiles if they are not headed directly for Guam poses a risk to the United States. While U.S. missile defense systems have improved in recent years, there is still concern that, in a live fire scenario, they will not be 100 percent effective. If the defense system fails to take out all targets, it weakens the perception of U.S. strength and deterrence. If they succeed when the missiles are not aimed directly for Guam or heading off course toward U.S. or Japanese territory, it could trigger a further escalation by the North, moving from a tense situation to the escalation toward war. While the most likely course is to only attempt an intercept if the missiles are headed toward specific, designated areas, there is the longer-term political risk of being seen as weak and as unwilling to defend regional allies.
4. How do the neighboring countries view the escalating tensions, and what steps may they take?
Although North Korea's threat is clearly aimed at the United States
, the neighboring countries are also acutely aware of the risks of rising military tensions. Japan does not want to see Pyongyang break its self-imposed moratorium of flying missiles over Japanese islands. The potential for an accident, particularly given the uneven track record of North Korean missiles, is fairly high. China has long seen a destabilized North Korea, or a North Korea moving toward unification with the South, as a higher risk than a North pursuing nuclear weapons and missile technology. But if the tit-for-tat threats and hyperbolic statements move from rhetoric to reality, that standing calculus shifts rapidly. Worse than the status quo or even a nuclear armed North Korea is military action on the Korean Peninsula. China's attention is on trying to ease back
the U.S. threats and actions, pushing its double freeze plan, and calling on Washington to refrain from escalation. The double freeze not only would serve to at least delay an immediate crisis, but it could also fit with China's longer-term goal of easing back the U.S. military presence in Asia, where China is asserting its right to be the central power. But China's options with Washington and Pyongyang are limited, and it may be that Beijing's primary action outside calls for talks is to beef up its defense forces along the North Korean border and prepare for the worst.
Russia has played a bit of a spoiler role of late in North Korea by selling fuel, hiring North Korean labor and buying up North Korean fishing rights to ease the impact of sanctions. And Moscow is in talks with the United States over numerous global and regional issues. But it is unclear whether Moscow has much positive leverage to exert on Pyongyang. Perhaps the most important country to watch, aside from the United States and North Korea, is South Korea. Seoul has made it clear it cannot tolerate another war on the Korean Peninsula. But neither is Seoul ready or capable of simply cutting off its defense ties with the United States or undermining its strategic relationship with Washington. South Korea is trying to balance its national security through its military alliance and through engagement with the North. Pyongyang is playing hard to get, putting more pressure on the South to take actions to soften its active defense exercises and displays with the United States in order to open dialogue. For South Korea, there are few good options, and the debate in Seoul is intense over just how to avoid a war without undermining South Korea's security.
5. What are the options to ease tensions?
At this point, the heightened situation is more rhetorical than physical. Revelations of U.S. assessments of North Korean nuclear and missile capabilities are acknowledgements of past realities, not immediate breakthroughs by North Korea that have suddenly changed the status quo. There is always room for both sides to ease their rhetoric. But the core issue is that the U.S. intent and the North Korean intent still appear incompatible. Pyongyang has no intention of giving up its nuclear and missile program, and the United States still asserts that Pyongyang cannot be allowed to achieve its final demonstrable long-range nuclear-tipped missile. There is no middle ground. Barring a change in political position by one or the other side, there is little space for compromise. It may be that the United States ultimately determines that management of a nuclear North Korea
is the more realistic and less costly option than military action, but this is a political decision that has yet to be made.
6. What should we watch for to understand the direction of the crisis?
Although both North Korea and the United States are always prepared for war, the United States does not currently appear fully prepared for a preventive strike against the North. During the upcoming Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercises, we need to watch what additional hardware and forces simple remain in Korea or in the theater after the exercise is over. While the United States has said it is not building up forces in Korea, there are ways to slowly and quietly add assets. One of the final triggers would be a drawdown of nonessential personnel in Korea, a fairly sure sign that conflict was on the horizon.
North Korea's testing cycle has been intense in recent months, but Pyongyang still has a few critical tests to conduct to finalize its nuclear deterrent. The North may no longer be able to rely on tests launched at steep angles to avoid overflying neighboring territory, and it may need to test its guidance system and re-entry capability over true distances. While Pyongyang has developed a flight path for its space launch vehicles that pursues a more southward trajectory, it has yet to test its strategic missiles along this path. We need to monitor Pyongyang's next series of tests to see how much closer the North is to finalizing its program, from ruggedization of the warhead to the program's targeting capabilities.
China is preparing for the upcoming party congress, an important moment for Xi Jinping, and is already engaged in a low-level military standoff with India. Beijing will be working studiously to ease frictions at least until November. China has been relatively cooperative in the United Nations, but it has had limited intent or success in applying sanctions and pressure on North Korea. Beijing has also had very limited communications with Pyongyang, and we should watch closely for any high-level delegation between the two capitals, as well as Chinese dialogue with South Korea to urge Seoul to accede to the double-freeze proposal.
South Korea will be particularly important to watch because it is caught between the risk of war and the risk of angering its strategic ally — that choice could not only have defensive consequences but could also play into the renegotiations of their free trade agreement. Seoul has walked a careful path under Moon Jae In, calling for dialogue with the North and easing restrictions on exchanges while also allowing an expansion of U.S. missile defense systems in South Korea and emphasizing the security relationship. The political direction of Seoul will be critical for any short-term easing of the current crisis. While it does not appear that Seoul will ease off the upcoming military exercises with the United States, any adjustment will be critical to watch for.