The war of words between the US and North Korea has escalated to new heights, with President Donald Trump vowing “fire and fury like the world has never seen” and Pyongyang announcing a plan to launch missiles at Guam. As the large-scale US-South Korea military drill draws close, tensions will simmer, and may boil over into a major crisis.
Tense verbal exchanges between Washington and Pyongyang are nothing new. But the latest round must be considered in the context of recent developments. North Korea’s two intercontinental ballistic missile tests within a month threatens US national security interests, and has significantly changed the political dynamic.
The US now faces an unprecedented threat from North Korea. Leaving aside various problems with precision, re-entry capabilities, and survival rate, North Korean ICBMs are now theoretically capable of reaching a considerable part of the US mainland. This important change requires a response from the US, and possibly a review of related policies and strategies.
Domestic issues may also prompt Trump to act aggressively on North Korea. His attempts to repeal Obamacare have suffered major setbacks. Investigations of suspected Russian connections with regard to the 2016 election has extended to family members, and may ultimately reach Trump himself. In the meantime, incessant in-fighting within the White House and the turnover of personnel in his cabinet has revealed both his inexperience and lack of support. Under such conditions, the likelihood of Trump choosing to act on North Korea to divert attention from his poor record at home increases.
Meanwhile, there is growing room for miscalculation on both sides. Miscalculation on the part of North Korea could arise from excessive self-confidence. Since it’s gotten away with launching two ICBMs without military retaliation, North Korea might decide to press ahead with its missile program, and may misjudge core US interests and political will. On the American side, miscalculation can stem from erroneous evaluations of North Korea’s nuclear or missile capabilities.
With its national security under unprecedented threat, and in the absence of effective counter-measures for Korean nuclear or missile progress, the possibility of the US resorting to military action against North Korea is rising considerably. The combination of Trump’s volatile character and the domestic problems he faces makes it even more likely for him to make a risky move.