The month of August usually brings an increase in angry rhetoric between North Korea and its main adversaries, South Korea and the US. During this month the yearly military exercises conducted by the South Korean and US militaries frequently lead to fuming statements by North Korea which, by and large, go unchallenged. The difference this year, with Donald Trump in the White House, is that the US now has a president who is more than willing to go toe-to-toe with the North Korean rhetoric. Over the past 48 hours a series of statements by North Korea and the US have, once again, raised tensions on the Korean peninsula. On Tuesday night, President Trump promised ‘fire and fury like the world has never seen’ if Pyongyang does not change course with regards to its missile and nuclear weapons programme. The North Korean regime responded by threatening a missile strike on the US territory of Guam in the western Pacific. So what has changed with this latest increase in tensions? Can North Korea really strike Guam and, if so, what might Trump do in response?
As with most things concerning North Korea, it is incredibly hard to accurately analyse its capabilities and motives. What seems clear, however, is that North Korea over the last few years has made considerable progress with its missile and nuclear weapon programmes. On 3 July, 2017 North Korea launched an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), labelled Hwasong-14. The missile was launched on an extremely high trajectory to an altitude of around 2,800 kilometres and travelled 930 kilometres in distance. Had the missile been configured to a range-maximizing flight path, the Hwasong-14 could have travelled as far as 7,000 kilometres, enough to reach Alaska and well in range of Guam. This is significant as it represents North Korea’s first test of a true ICBM capable of reaching US territory.
What remains unclear, however, is how accurate North Korea’s missile programme is. Most observers agree that these missiles are usually inaccurate because of their reliance on early guidance systems acquired from the Soviet Union. However, some defectors and experts say North Korea has begun using GPS guidance, similar to that of China’s navigation system, raising questions about whether North Korea’s arsenal of missiles is more accurate and reliable than previously believed. For now it seems that, although North Korea’s missiles have the range to reach Guam, there is still considerable work to be done with regards to the missiles accuracy. A statement released on 10 August by North Korea said that any plan of using missiles directed at Guam would see the missiles land in the sea some 30 km (17 miles) away from Guam. This could be seen as an attempt by North Korea to tone down some of its rhetoric but it more likely points to a tacit admission by North Korea that, currently, its missiles do not have the accuracy to threaten Guam. Therefore, North Korea does not currently pose a serious threat to the US. In order for that to happen we can expect further North Korean missile tests in order to develop the range, accuracy, and reliability of its missiles.
Similarly, Trump has few attractive options to credibly challenge North Korea and force it to reign in its missile and nuclear weapons programme. A pre-emptive military strike against North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons capabilities would be far messier than the ‘surgical strike’ label that such military actions usually receive. With thousands of conventional artillery pieces stationed along its border with South Korea, less than 50 miles away from Seoul, North Korea would be able to produce considerable damage to South Korea without resorting to its nuclear arsenal. Such action would also be highly unwelcome in South Korea which would bear the brunt of any North Korean retaliation.
For now it seems that the best way forward is to deter and contain North Korea using diplomatic and economic pressure, such as the new round of sanctions recently passed unanimously at the United Nations Security Council. These should be paired with discussions between the US, South Korea, China on the one hand and North Korea on the other. In the meantime, both sides would benefit from an ease in the hostility of the rhetoric currently used. The US may not realistically be threatening North Korea but the language used by Trump may convince North Korea that it is. In an already unpredictable and paranoid regime such rhetoric may embolden it further rather than ease tensions.