Rais­ing the stakes: Why N Korea is talk­ing up Guam So are we all headed to­ward war?

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -


North Korea’s an­nounce­ment that it is fi­nal­iz­ing a plan to launch four bal­lis­tic mis­siles over Ja­pan to­ward the is­land of Guam has touched off a se­ries of fiery threats from Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and upped ten­sions be­tween Py­ongyang and Washington to a whole new level. So are we all headed to­ward war?

If past prece­dent is any guide, the an­swer is no. Though it has been mostly lost as the cur­rent round of tough talk keeps escalating, North Korea just a few months ago con­ducted a sim­i­lar re­hearsal strike on a US mil­i­tary base in Ja­pan. And that mis­sile test led to nary a tweet from Trump. For sure, if Py­ongyang were to go through with its planned launch of mis­siles to­ward Guam, it would be an ex­tremely provoca­tive move. But it is also one that the US mil­i­tary has been watch­ing de­velop for years, with fairly well-de­fined steps that have led to an ever more com­pli­cated and po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tion - but not the out­break of a nu­clear war. A look at what Py­ongyang is up to, and how we got here:

Set­ting the stage

In March, at around the time of the big­gest an­nual ma­neu­vers be­tween the US and South Korea, the North fired four ex­tended-range Scud mis­siles into wa­ters off the Ja­panese coast in what was in­tended to be a mock at­tack on Ma­rine Corps Air Sta­tion, Iwakuni. Iwakuni is one of the main US bases in Ja­pan and was the stag­ing point for F-35 stealth fight­ers be­lieved to be train­ing for pre­ci­sion strikes on North Korea against Kim Jong Un and his top lieu­tenants.

The March mis­sile launch was not as bold as the plan for Guam - the North didn’t tell the world be­fore­hand and de­lib­er­ately sent the mis­siles much far­ther north than the base it­self, an easy tweak. But the move sent a strong mes­sage that such an at­tack would be pos­si­ble. The public re­sponse from Trump then was muted. Nearly two weeks af­ter the launch, he tweeted, with­out men­tion­ing the mis­sile test: “North Korea is be­hav­ing very badly. They have been ‘play­ing’ the United States for years. China has done lit­tle to help!” Py­ongyang, pos­si­bly em­bold­ened by that and its two suc­cess­ful in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­sile tests in July, ap­pears to be hop­ing to send an even stronger mes­sage for Trump to back off with its Guam plan, or maybe con­sider di­rect talks rather than mil­i­tary ac­tion.

Giv­ing no­tice

The big­gest de­par­ture from North Korea’s es­tab­lished pat­tern this time around was its de­ci­sion to an­nounce the de­tails of the Guam plan. De­spite some fright­ened mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tions oth­er­wise, it is not threat­en­ing to ac­tu­ally at­tack Guam. But if it does launch Hwa­song-12 mis­siles to within 30-40 kilo­me­ters of the US ter­ri­tory’s shores, its stated goal, it would by any mea­sure be an ex­cep­tion­ally provoca­tive move.

That helps ex­plain why it would de­cide to give prior no­tice. To keep the sit­u­a­tion from get­ting too much out of con­trol, it needed to ex­plain it­self on the record to defuse com­plaints from China and make sure Washington knew it wasn’t the open­ing vol­ley of a Korean War 2.0. The con­cern over China’s re­ac­tion is im­por­tant. China is the North’s key trad­ing part­ner and, al­though nei­ther trusts the other very much, its big­gest po­lit­i­cal buf­fer against pres­sure from Washington and its al­lies.

Beijing, which is con­cerned about the im­pli­ca­tions for its own se­cu­rity that a nu­clear North Korea poses, is al­most cer­tainly let­ting Py­ongyang know of its con­cerns. Point­ing to US threats on Guam serves to re­but Chi­nese com­plaints, at least a bit. But it could also use an­other fa­mil­iar ra­tio­nale. North Korea sees an­nual USSouth Korea mil­i­tary ex­er­cises as a pre­lude for an in­va­sion. The next big ones are set to start, on sched­ule, on Aug 21. North Korean state me­dia re­ports sug­gest Kim Jong Un could po­ten­tially sign off on the plan at about that same time.

Pulling the trig­ger?

Py­ongyang has ex­plic­itly and re­peat­edly stated its anger over US B1B bombers based in Guam con­duct­ing fly­overs of the Korean Penin­sula. It could use the next one to jus­tify send­ing its mis­siles to­ward Guam as some­thing of a counter-dis­play.

The B-1B bomber flights, though largely sym­bolic, are es­pe­cially sen­si­tive to Py­ongyang be­cause they rep­re­sent a se­ri­ous threat that North Korea’s air de­fenses can’t con­fi­dently pro­tect against. Trump played that up on Fri­day by retweet­ing a US Pa­cific Com­mand tweet say­ing the bombers on Guam are ready to ful­fill their “Fight Tonight” mis­sion if called upon.

But there is also a lot of his­tory here. The US dev­as­tated most of North Korea’s cities and in­fra­struc­ture with a mas­sive bomb­ing cam­paign dur­ing the 1950-53 Korean War. Joshua Pol­lack, a se­nior re­search as­so­ciate at the Mid­dle­bury In­sti­tute of In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies at Mon­terey, in Cal­i­for­nia, noted the link but cau­tioned that the North might want to con­duct the launch with or with­out a B-1B flight to jus­tify it.

“If we do stop fly­ing bombers at them for a while, they can de­clare vic­tory and go home, and then de­cide whether to do it at some later date in re­sponse to what­ever,” he said. “Whether they feel gen­uinely an­noyed and threat­ened or sim­ply see this as a way to jus­tify more mis­sile tests to the Chi­nese is a fair ques­tion.” —AP

HA­GATNA, Guam: Watch Room staff mon­i­tors the news and up­dates and co­or­di­nate with agen­cies on lo­cal in an event of emer­gency yes­ter­day as Guam Home­land Se­cu­rity opens its 24-hour Watch Room op­er­a­tion in re­sponse to the threats from North Korea. —AP

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