Just a short post today, since, given the headlines, I feel as though I have to return to this subject, even though I said most of what needs to be said in my earlier post.

We are not in a crisis with North Korea. North Korea does not pose a serious threat to the United States: not now, not in the long term.* Hard as it may be for many Americans to believe, Kim Jong-un’s desire for nukes is mainly motivated by defensive concerns, and is quite rational.

The only imminent danger is that a continued escalation of incendiary rhetoric on both sides could create enough uncertainty so that a foolish, false move by one or the other side cannot be ruled out. North Korea in recent weeks and months hasn’t been doing anything that it hasn’t been doing for years: building a nuclear arsenal and a capacity to deliver it. The empty threats coming out of Pyongyang should be recognized as such. Kim, bizarre and brutal as he is, is not suicidal; he has no reason to attack the US, and it’s still a long time before he will have the ability to hit the West Coast.  Even his new threat to attack Guam is barely credible. Grisly threats from North Korea are not a new phenomenon. In 1994, the North threatened to turn Seoul into “a sea of fire.” A few months later, they were in negotiations with the United States.

What has changed is that Kim Jong-un is no longer the only weirdly coiffed blowhard who controls nuclear weapons. We have to hope that the relatively sane people around Trump can convince their man-child that bombastic rhetoric just makes things worse, and that there is no easy solution to our North Korea problem.   I think the chances are that they will succeed, and that the Trump administration will begin to deal with North Korea as the continuing but not catastrophic problem that it is.  But expect some angry tweets designed to cover Trump’s tracks back from the brink.


*In a generally sensible and worth-reading op-ed today, Susan Rice says that North Korea poses a “growing threat to America’s security.” That’s the kind of thing that a US foreign policy establishmentarian feels obliged to say to demonstrate seriousness and lack of complacency. But a “growing” threat, if it starts from a very low base, is still not a terribly serious one.


  1. Jeffrey Herrmann August 10, 2017 at 12:36 pm

    We are not in a crisis (caused by North Korea, anyway) but I am not so sure the threat to Guam is an idle threat.
    Would the US really attack North Korea in retaliation for a conventional missile attack on Guam? A proportional response from the US would leave the North Korean government and military intact. Would we really go all out in response to a small conventional strike? Might Kim calculate he could get away with it?
    You can bet the South Koreans hope the US would not retaliate for a strike on Guam, because they would be next on the hit list, and there is nothing to prevent tens of thousands of South Korean casualties from artillery alone. Moreover, if we devastated North Korean, we would be slaughtering the extended families of many South Koreans, for which they would not be forgiving.
    It’s a real dilemma.

  2. tonygreco August 10, 2017 at 3:40 pm

    I didn’t entirely write off the possibility of the N. Koreans hitting Guam, but I think it extremely unlikely. As the link indicates, it doesn’t look like they have any capacity to do real damage to Guam, even if they can reach it with a missile, so any strike would probably be a demonstration of impotence more than anything else. Besides, any such move would serve no purpose, and Kim, notwithstanding his rhetoric, is not irrational.

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