North Korea 101: Are We Really Primed for War?
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We all know it’s a crisis. Every night this week, NBC, CBS and every other media outlet in the country have led their evening newscasts with increasingly grim news out of Korea.
It’s gone like this. A state of war has been declared between North Korea and the United States by Kim Jong-un, the North’s 27-year-old hereditary dictator. North Korea has battle plans to attack Washington and other U.S. cities, including, of all places, Austin, Texas, with atomic weapons. The Kaesong Industrial Zone, the last demonstration of North and South Korean cooperation just above the DMZ, has been temporarily shut down after the North refused entry to South Koreans who work there. Pyongyang has threatened to restart its Yongbyon nuclear power plant, mothballed since 2007 under a nuclear proliferation agreement with Washington and other regional powers, and begin producing bomb-ready plutonium again. And on Thursday, North Korea was allegedly moving missiles to its east coast facing Japan.
The sense of hysteria and impending doom has been magnified by the Obama administration and the Pentagon. In a show of force not seen in East Asia for decades, the United States, as part of a series of war games with South Korea, dispatched B-52 and stealth B-2 bombers capable of devastating nuclear and tactical strikes screaming across Korean skies. F-22 warplanes, perhaps the most advanced in the U.S. arsenal, are there too, along with two guided-missile destroyers. A new THAAD portable missile defense system is being deployed to nearby Guam as a “precautionary” measure against possible North Korean missile strikes, and plans are underway for a massive expansion in U.S. missile defense systems in Alaska and the West Coast. Meanwhile, U.S. and South Korean troops practice simulated nuclear attacks and even regime change in their massive military drills, which both governments described as “defensive.”
The rhetoric has ratcheted up too – to alarming levels. “We formally inform the White House and Pentagon that the ever-escalating U.S. hostile policy toward the DPRK and its reckless nuclear threat will be smashed” by “cutting-edge smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear strike means of the DPRK,” a spokesman for the Korean Peoples’ Army (KPA) declared this week, using the formal name for the North – the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel responded in kind, calling the DPRK a “real and clear danger and threat” to the United States and its allies. “They have nuclear capacity now,” he added. “They have missile delivery capacity now.”
And then, out of the blue, President Obama and his military leaders came out on Thursday and sought to calm the waters – and the skies. “The White House is dialing back the aggressive posture amid fears that it could inadvertently trigger an even deeper crisis,” the Wall Street Journal reported in Thursday’s editions. It quoted a “senior administration official” explaining that the concern was “that we were heightening the prospect of misperceptions on the part of the North Koreans, and that that could lead to miscalculations.” U.S. officials, the Journal added, didn’t believe the DPRK had “any imminent plans to take military action.”
What the hell is going on? Are we really as close to war as this sounds? Why all the buildup if North Korea was bluffing? What’s up with the “dialing back” of U.S. forces? And what brought us to this point?
Before getting to those questions, everybody should take a deep breath. First, as anyone familiar with North Korea knows, any attack by the DPRK on the U.S. or its allies would be suicide for the country of 30 million: It would be met by a relentless counterattack by the most powerful military force the world has ever seen. Threats sound ominous, but at this point that’s all they seem to be: threats, designed to trigger a response in Washington that, in the mind of Kim and his military advisers, might lead to direct talks. (Remember his plaintive request to Dennis Rodman? “Obama should call me.”)