According to a US Defense Intelligence Agency report, Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities and conventional long range missile programmes are gathering momentum at a rapid clip. The report indicated that North Korea has successfully manufactured a miniaturised nuclear warhead that can fit onto its ballistic missiles, including intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The report added that the reclusive state has as many as 60 nuclear weapons, well surpassing previous estimates.
Despite the missile tests, there’s plenty of scepticism over whether or not North Korea has developed the re-entry vehicle technology needed to land a warhead. Still, the country’s nuclear strike capability has probably crossed a point of no return: it has developed the ability to deliver a nuclear warhead to continental US.
Donald Trump famously asserted that he would not allow Pyongyang to develop nuclear weapons capable of reaching US soil; in this he and his predecessors have clearly failed. The exchange of threats and provocative sabre rattling on both sides suggests that the possibility of miscalculation, miscommunication, deterrence failure, and state of crisis in East Asia has become an increasingly dangerous geostrategic reality – neither side appears prepared to back down from their diplomatic one-upmanship.
Over the past few weeks, the incendiary and escalatory barbs from Washington and Pyongyang have escalated. Trump thundered that Pyongyang’s threats “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen”; Pyongyang said it was planning an attack on US bases at Guam. Trump then upped the ante, telling reporters that his “fire and fury” comments were not tough enough and that Kim Jong-un would “truly regret” any threats to the US or its allies. He also said that US military capabilities were “locked and loaded” in case North Korea “acted unwisely”.
This all implies that the US could countenance a nuclear first strike. But Trump hasn’t clarified precisely what would constitute an “unwise” action, nor what Kim Jong-un would have to do to prevent an American attack. This bellicose but vague rhetoric has caused anxiety in the Asia-Pacific, with some governments (especially China) urging restraint.
The bottom line, however is clear: Washington has very few viable options, and the potential for a serious nuclear crisis could be just a few words (or tweets) away. So how likely is war, and can it be stopped?
Polarised and tense
The short answer is that in the best case scenario, the US should brace itself for a permanent state of crisis or Cold War. Inadvertently or otherwise, Trump has painted himself into a strategic corner.
The North Korean problem is highly complex. All parties involved – the US, Japan, South Korea, China, and Russia – will have to be part of any solution, and Washington is pressuring Beijing in particular to lean harder on Kim. But ultimately, Pyongyang’s top security objectives (achieve international recognition as a nuclear armed state) are diametrically opposed to Washington’s (denuclearise the Korean Peninsula), leaving almost no space for compromise or non-military solutions.
Much of this was true before the latest war of words, but thanks to Trump, the whole deterrence calculus has changed. Pyongyang has long understood that it would only incur the US’s nuclear “fire and fury” by itself using nuclear weapons first. But Trump’s recent statements suggest that if the Kim government threatens the US or its allies, he might actually contemplate a preventative nuclear strike.
History has shown that brinkmanship can rapidly escalate. States’ attempts to signal resolve and strength can lead to misperception and miscalculation, and any minor incident (for example, a naval skirmish or aircraft collision) on the Korean peninsula could rapidly escalate to a nuclear strike. If this were to happen, the chain of events would likely be beyond the control of either Trump or Kim.
Is Trump bluffing?
Worryingly, there is no shortage of hawks in Washington urging the administration to launch a preventive attack. Analysts have drawn parallels with Trump’s rhetoric and the “rain of ruin speech” that then prresident Truman delivered in 1945 after ordering the use of a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima. To be sure, Trump’s rhetoric has eclipsed even the harshest language previous US administrations have used to warn Pyongyang off any further provocations.
In international relations, words matter, especially when nuclear weapons are involved. And whether or not Trump is prepared to back up what he says with action, when US presidents speak, other leaders listen. If he has no intention of carrying out his threat in the face of Pyongyang’s provocations, the strategic consequences could be huge.
A bluff exposed would gravely undermine the nuclear deterrence the US offers to its allies, and in turn embolden Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme and strengthen Kim’s hand as he tries to disrupt South Korea and Japan’s relationship with the US’s security architecture. Those two countries might also explore ways to substitute America’s extended nuclear deterrence with their own nuclear weapons – guaranteeing permanent enmity from China and Russia.
Whether Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip loose words are merely a negotiating ploy or part of a carefully calibrated stratagem to deter Kim, they are unlikely to work. Trump’s erratic style has drawn comparisons with Nixon’s so-called madman theory: coercing an adversary into negotiations by signalling the US president is sufficiently unhinged to carry out a catastrophic attack.
But whereas Nixon relied on clear messages and military signals, the Trump administration’s unpredictability and mixed messages suggest impulsiveness, not strategic coherence. This tactic risks fuelling Pyongyang’s fear for the survival of the regime to the point where it might contemplate a desperate and suicidal last stand, nuclear or otherwise.
The bottom line is that regardless of how seriously threats are intended, rhetorical escalation is dangerous. You don’t bluff – and you certainly don’t bluff and then back down.