Is North Korea really "backing down" on its plan of action for a missile test in the direction of Guam? The country's military briefed President Kim Jong Un on Aug. 14 on the drafted plan during his visit to the Strategic Force of the Korean People's Army, according to a report in the official Korean Central News Agency. The North Korean president then urged Washington to stop its aggressive posturing or Pyongyang "will make an important decision as it already declared."
While some in the media are couching this as North Korea backing off its Guam threat, Kim's statement is in line with the original comments by the North's military. On Aug. 10, the military said it would draft the plan, submit it to Kim by mid-month and then he would "keep closely watching the speech and behavior of the U.S." The operational plan was not a firm commitment but a conditional threat for the United States not to push North Korea into "an unavoidable military choice." U.S.-South Korean joint Ulchi-Freedom Guardian exercises will run from Aug. 21-31. There are still five days before the start of the exercises and over two weeks until they end — a great deal of time for North Korea to weigh its options.
U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis warned North Korea on Aug. 14 that a test near Guam risked sparking war and that U.S. forces would shoot down any device that looked as if it would strike the island. The United States (and Japan, which the missiles would fly over) have likely drafted scenarios under which a missile flight constitutes a threat requiring action to intercept the projectile. Key North Korean ambassadors (including envoys to China, Russia and the United Nations) even returned to North Korea on Aug. 14 for a meeting on policy coordination.
North Korea's public drafting of a plan to fire missiles near Guam served to ratchet up the perception of conflict ahead of the U.S.-South Korean military exercises. It has also reinforced the rifts among the United States, South Korea and China regarding how to deal with North Korea. Such a test would demonstrate a North Korean capability for multiple launches at a distant target and reinforce the North's ability to strike at U.S. military facilities well beyond South Korea and Japan. For Pyongyang, keeping the U.S. alliance from coming to a consensus for war, and keeping China and Russia focused on dissuading any U.S. decision toward conflict serves to both buy enough time to complete their nuclear deterrent, while also removing the U.S. option for preventive military action. Though North Korea is signaling its restraint at the moment, fiery rhetoric and further missile tests are far from over.