North Korea’s apparent walk back of its threat to fire missiles near the U.S. territory of Guam could mean military tensions with the United States have been diminished—or at least postponed.
Or it could indicate that much of the seeming escalation in tensions between the two sides last week was more rhetoric than reality to begin with. State media reported Tuesday that Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, made the decision following a meeting with military commanders, but he reserved the right to fire the Hawsong-12 near Guam if the U.S. grows “more reckless.”
The move comes after a week marked by bellicose rhetoric from both sides. It began last weekend when the UN Security Council unanimously voted to tighten sanctions on North Korea for its tests last month of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of reaching the U.S. (though South Korea’s vice-defense minister said the North still lacks the technology for its ICBMs to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere, adding Pyongyang was still “at least one to two more years” way from that). Then came reports that U.S. intelligence agencies had assessed that North Korea had miniaturized a nuclear warhead that could be fitted onto the ICBMs.
President Trump responded saying any North Korean threat “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” North Korea’s responded, warning it planned to strike near Guam as soon as mid-August, and was merely waiting for Kim to give the go-ahead. Trump, however, doubled down, saying if Pyongyang threatened U.S. interests and allies “things will happen to them like they never thought possible.” He then said U.S. military solutions were “locked and loaded,” adding he hoped Kim “will find another path.”
The remarks led to concerns the two countries were one errant comment away from a conflict—possibly involving nuclear weapons. Trump has previously said that while the U.S. was open to diplomacy, two-plus decades of talks with North Korea had not persuaded the country to renounce its nuclear-weapons or missile programs. In fact, North Korea has repeatedly been found cheating on its international obligations, part of the reason why the Obama administration did not talk with the North.
Still, it emerged that despite the president’s comments, the Trump administration had been engaged in regular back-channel diplomacy with Kim’s regime at the UN. The two sides—represented by Joseph Yun, the U.S. envoy for North Korea policy, and Pak Song Il, the North Korean diplomat at the UN mission—had been discussing U.S. citizens detained in North Korea as well as relations between the two countries. Meanwhile, Rex Tillerson, the U.S. secretary of state, and James Mattis, the defense secretary, in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal said the U.S. wanted a diplomatic solution to the tensions, and insisted the U.S. wasn’t seeking regime change in the North.
What also emerged was that amid the escalating rhetoric, there was little evidence of a parallel increase in U.S. military preparedness. As Defense News pointed out:
In Yokosuka, Japan, the U.S. Navy’s forward-deployed ready aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan sits peacefully pier-side, along with the U.S. 7th Fleet command ship Blue Ridge. On the Korean Peninsula, the State Department has not advised American citizens to leave the country and U.S. military family members are not being evacuated. No Marines are being loaded on amphibious ships; no sailors have been recalled off leave to prepare for emergency operations; and no ballistic missile defense ships have been sortied to North Korea, the waters off Japan or to Guam, three sources said.
Nor were there signs that the U.S. was flying B-1 bombers, stationed at the Andersen Air Force Base on Guam, over the Korean peninsula. Those flights have long been a source of irritation for North Korea—and Major Phil Ventura, a spokesman for Pacific Air Forces, said in an email that the last B-1 mission that went into Korean airspace was August 7, one day before Trump’s remarks about “fire and fury.”
The B1s are part of the continued U.S. bomber presence in the region since 2004. Ventura said the missions are scheduled weeks in advance: Sometimes they are scheduled to support an exercise; at other times, the schedules of U.S. partners play a role, he said. But two recent flights—on July 7 and July 29—were carried out as “deliberate, direct responses to North Korean aggression” after Pyongyang’s launch of ICBMs.
Perhaps most significant in the reduction of tensions, though, is China’s role. Beijing wields much influence over North Korea—though it says the West overstates its influence—and through the crisis it urged restraint. It also took steps to ban the import of iron, lead, and coal from North Korea in line with the new UN sanctions. China accounts for more than 90 percent of trade with North Korea—and though the sanctions have been criticized as inadequate—the restrictions are expected to cost the North about $1 billion annually.
But there might be another reason for North Korea’s rationale to apparently back off its threat: Its threats aren’t unusual. As The Wall Street Journal pointed out:
Two years ago, during another August standoff, North Korea issued a 48-hour ultimatum to South Korea to switch off loudspeakers blaring propaganda critical of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un across the demilitarized zone that separates the two countries, following the explosion of a land mine there that maimed two South Korean soldiers. North Korea threatened to use force to stop the broadcasts.
South Korea ignored the deadline, and days later, North Korea expressed regret for the land mine, dismissed several senior officials and put inter-Korean relations back on what it called a “track of reconciliation and trust.” South Korea shut off its loudspeakers.
In March last year, also during U.S.-South Korea military exercises, Pyongyang threatened to attack Seoul’s presidential palace unless it received an apology from then South Korean President Park Geun-hye. No apology was forthcoming, and the threat never materialized.
Ultimately, though the threat of conflict has reduced in the short term, the North Korean statement did not completely rule out the use of military force near Guam, saying the U.S. must “at once arrogant provocations against [North Korea] and unilateral demands and not provoke it any longer.” That’s an apparent reference to next week’s long-planned U.S.-South Korea military exercises. North Korea usually reacts in anger at such exercises, calling them an act of war. Last year it conducted a nuclear test soon after the joint exercises. Any similar action this time would almost certainly result in international condemnation—or worse.