- Thomson Reuters
For all President Donald Trump’s recent “fire and fury” rhetoric toward North Korea, he seems to have accurately assessed Kim Jong Un’s unwillingness to provoke the US with a missile test near Guam and called the North Korean leader on his bluff.
After escalating exchanges between Kim and Trump led to a promise by North Korea to provide Kim in mid-August with a plan to test missiles near Guam, reports on Monday night indicated that North Korea was backing away from its threats against the US territory.
While Kim could act later, he faces an uphill battle in carrying out his show of force even without threat of a US response.
Though experts on diplomacy and North Korea knocked Trump for his recent rhetoric, which sounded a bit like the propaganda that comes from Pyongyang, Yun Sun, a senior associate at the Stimson Center, told Business Insider that Trump’s bluster didn’t change much in terms of “broad strategic issues.”
The Hwasong-12 missile North Korea said it would use has been tested just four times, with only one success in May. Experts contacted by Business Insider noted that North Korea’s statement was full of conditional clauses and said it most likely indicated Kim was bluffing.
Even if the missiles, reentry vehicles, and guidance systems worked perfectly, which would be a stretch, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said Monday that the US would seek to shoot down the incoming missiles. It seems unlikely that North Korea could satisfactorily test its missiles near Guam until its capability improves.
“If he does anything with respect to Guam or any place else that’s an American territory or an American ally, he will truly regret it, and he will regret it fast,” Trump said of Kim on Friday.
“They’re still threatening attacks on Guam but taking a rather de-escalatory tone,” Sun said Tuesday morning. Indeed, North Korea’s latest statement calls for the US to stop provocations and accuses the US of pushing the Korean Peninsula to the brink of war.
At the same time, Sun said, North Korea and the US are “maintaining a pretty regular and open channel of exchanges” through the “New York” channel, an unofficial line of communication between the two countries that gets shut off during more tense exchanges.
- Reuters / KCNA
Importantly, North Korea has shown it has some understanding of Trump. Sun said the real danger in Trump’s fiery rhetoric was that North Korea may misread him and launch a preemptive strike on the US or South Korea.
Sun said that while Trump had degraded himself and the US by engaging in North Korea-like rhetoric, and risked his credibility by issuing threats of his own on which he did not follow through, she thought his bluster had its biggest impact on domestic US politics and not on the military situation in the Koreas.
But North Korea’s inexperience and apparent inability in staging the kind of crippling attack it would seek to open a conflict with the US and its allies, combined with its overriding concern for regime security, seem to have halted its threat to Guam while it continues to consider diplomatic or de-escalatory paths.