Latest Korean Standoff May Lack an Off-Ramp

History says Pyongyang will back down, but experts worry this time is different; ‘neither side has any incentive to make the first concession’

South Korean and U.S. Marines drilling together in March of 2016. Tensions on the Korean Peninsula reliably rise during the two militaries’ joint exercises—such as the annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian drills, expected to start around Aug. 21—which Seoul and Washington say are defensive and Pyongyang says are rehearsals for an invasion.
South Korean and U.S. Marines drilling together in March of 2016. Tensions on the Korean Peninsula reliably rise during the two militaries’ joint exercises—such as the annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian drills, expected to start around Aug. 21—which Seoul and Washington say are defensive and Pyongyang says are rehearsals for an invasion. PHOTO: KIM JUN-BUM/ASSOCIATED PRESS

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Updated Aug. 10, 2017 11:01 a.m. ET

SEOUL—When North Korea has made military threats in recent times, it has usually sought an off-ramp before tensions could spill over into armed conflict.

But the current standoff—U.S. President Donald Trump warning North Korea of “fire and fury,” Pyongyang declaring its intention to send missiles into the waters off Guam, site of a U.S. military base—could extend for weeks or months, security experts and scholars say.

Unlike in the past, North Korea is near having the plausible ability to strike the U.S. mainland with nuclear weapons.

The exchange of threats comes at a particularly delicate moment on the Korean Peninsula, less than two weeks before a planned joint military exercise by the U.S. and its allies in South Korea. The annual Ulchi Freedom Guardian drills, expected to start around Aug. 21 and usually lasting about two weeks, incense North Korea. A spokeswoman for the U.S. military in South Korea declined to comment on the exercises beyond saying they are “regularly scheduled” drills.

On the North Korean side, the general leading the country’s missile program is set in “mid-August” to present leader Kim Jong Un with a specific plan for the simultaneous launch of four intermediate-range missiles toward Guam, according to a North Korean state media report on Thursday. Separately, there are concerns that Pyongyang could answer the latest United Nations Security Council sanctions with another nuclear test or a long-range missile launch.

“Neither side has any incentive to make the first concession,” said Jung Kim, a professor of political science at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. “At least for one or two months, we’ll see this game of chicken continue.”

While the U.S. and South Korea say that the drills are defensive, meant to fine-tune operations between the two allied militaries, North Korea calls them rehearsals for invasion. That perception could heightened if the U.S. deploys strategic assets such as aircraft carriers or sends nuclear-capable bombers to the Korean Peninsula. Tensions spiked during the countries’ springtime joint exercises, Key Resolve and Foal Eagle, after Mr. Trump said that he was sending an “armada” to the Korean Peninsula.

“I’m concerned about inadvertent escalation as we enter into the season of planned U.S.-South Korea military exercises,” said John Park, director of the Korea Working Group at Harvard University’s Belfer Center. Another round of threats of force from Mr. Trump and North Korea’s state news agency—so presumably from Mr. Kim—would make miscommunication and miscalculation much more likely, he said.

“Almost 24 hours elapsed before we saw a concerted effort in the Trump administration to dial back and qualify the president’s ‘fire and fury’ comment,” Mr. Park noted.

North Korea’s neighbor China, its most important ally, frequently calls on the U.S. and South Korea to desist with the drills to lower tensions.

Usually expressed via threatening public statements from both sides, tensions have flared many times in the past, only to subside.

In 2013, North Korea suspended work at a joint inter-Korean industrial park and warned foreign diplomats to leave Pyongyang as it threatened missile strikes on U.S. Pacific bases, including in Guam and Hawaii. In August 2015, Pyongyang told Seoul it would attack in 48 hours unless South Korea ceased propaganda broadcasts over loudspeakers at the demilitarized zone separating the two countries. Seoul had resumed the broadcasts after two of its soldiers were maimed in a mine explosion that it blamed on the North.

Recent news reports indicate North Korea may have succeeded in building a nuclear warhead that can fit atop of one of the regime’s intercontinental missiles. WSJ’s Gerald F. Seib examines what that means for the U.S., where President Donald Trump Tuesday threatened Pyongyang with ‘fire and fury.’ Photo: AP

Both times, North Korea backed down.

Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha University in Seoul, said launching missiles toward Guam would be so provocative that Pyongyang is unlikely to deliver on that threat.

Still, this time could be different. With less certainty about the U.S. approach under President Donald Trump, scholars and security experts see a higher possibility of miscalculation on either side.

North Korean missiles landing in Guam’s territorial waters would sow chaos. “Is that an act of war? This is pretty frightening. What would be the response at that point?” said Don Manzullo, president and chief executive officer of the Korea Economic Institute in Washington and a former U.S. congressman.

“The added risk this year is at the rhetorical level—how the perennial North Korean provocations are perceived in the White House,” said Adam Mount, senior fellow with the left-leaning Center for American Progress think tank in Washington. “At that level, there is again a serious risk of escalation.”

North Korea may also be trying new tactics, now that it has missiles capable of reaching prominent U.S. military targets. The threat to Andersen Air Force Base on Guam may be aimed at persuading the U.S. to stop sending its B-1B bombers stationed there on flyovers of the Korean Peninsula, as it has several times this year.

“It’s interesting to me that this threat was aimed at the B-1B flights rather than the exercises,” Mr. Mount said. “My guess is they’re testing out this new model of coercive threat.”

Corrections & Amplifications 

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Don Manzullo is a former U.S. congressman and president and chief executive officer of the Korea Economic Institute in Washington. An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled his last name. (Aug. 10)

Write to Jonathan Cheng at jonathan.cheng@wsj.com

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https://www.wsj.com/articles/latest-korean-standoff-may-lack-an-off-ramp-1502372561

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One Response to “Latest Korean Standoff May Lack an Off-Ramp”

  1. daveyone1 Says:

    Reblogged this on World Peace Forum.

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