Everyone take a deep breath (you too, Mr. President): We’re probably not about to go to war with North Korea.
It certainly might feel that way if you’ve been paying attention to the news in the past 24 hours or so. On Monday, North Korea issued a stark warning to the United States: If you attack us, we will respond with nuclear weapons.
“Should the US pounce upon the DPRK with military force at last, the DPRK is ready to teach the US a severe lesson with its strategic nuclear force,” North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho said, using the acronym for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, North Korea’s formal name.
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On Tuesday, President Trump shot back, warning that North Korea “best not make any more threats to the US. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
On top of that, Pyongyang has successfully tested a long-range missile that experts say is theoretically capable of hitting the US mainland, including cities like Chicago, New York, and Washington. And the US military now believes North Korea has the capability to “miniaturize” a nuclear weapon and fit it onto that missile.
But as scary as all of that sounds, there is no real reason to think the US is actually planning to launch a war with North Korea anytime soon — which is the condition under which North Korea says it would actually try to launch a nuclear strike against the US.
While the Trump administration has repeatedly said that “all options are on the table” when it comes to dealing with the North Korean nuclear threat, it has largely pursued a moderate diplomatic approach to the crisis in practice — pushing for harsh new sanctions against North Korea at the United Nations Security Council and indicating the US would be willing to sit down for one-on-one talks with the North Koreans.
“We do not seek a regime change, we do not seek a collapse of the regime, we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula, we do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th Parallel,” Tillerson said in a press briefing at the State Department on August 1.
In fact, even as Trump was saying that he was considering “pretty severe things” in response to North Korea’s first test of an intercontinental ballistic missile on July 4, Secretary of Defense James Mattis was telling reporters at the Pentagon that “I do not believe this capability in itself brings us close to war.” He added that US “self-restraint” had prevented conflict and that “diplomatic efforts remain underway.”
There is also no indication that the US has started taking the kinds of massive logistical preparations needed to launch a war against North Korea. Hell, we don’t even have an ambassador to South Korea yet, as my colleague Zack Beauchamp has reported. Nor do we have an assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs in the State Department or an assistant secretary for Asian and Pacific security affairs at the Defense Department.
As Beauchamp explains:
This is a situation in which you want smart, levelheaded people in the top Korea-related posts in the US government. You want leading subject matter experts running Asia policy in the Departments of State and Defense, and someone who knows the South Korean government well serving as ambassador in Seoul.
Yet in the Trump administration, those positions remain vacant.
If we were really about to launch a massive, bloody war with North Korea that could potentially kill tens of thousands of innocent civilians in South Korea and elsewhere — one war game convened by the Atlantic magazine back in 2005 predicted that a North Korean attack on the South would kill 100,000 people in Seoul in the first few days alone, while others put the estimate even higher — one would expect to see a major mobilization happening across the political, military, and diplomatic arms of the US government.
We’re not seeing anything like that. What we do have is a belligerent statement from President Trump that he made while on vacation in New Jersey.
So while anything is theoretically possible when it comes to Trump, it’s more likely that this is yet another example of him making an extremely inflammatory statement without having actually thought through the policy implications of it, as we saw with his tweet announcing a new ban on transgender service members in the US military.
That’s bad enough when we’re talking about a policy affecting the lives of thousands of trans American service members. It’s even worse when we’re talking about a war that could involve nuclear bombs.
And although it’s probably slightly easier for Trump to launch a military strike against a sovereign nation on the other side of the globe with little to no advance planning than it is to try to change a Defense Department policy with little to no advance planning, the fact that the people in charge of launching a war on North Korea don’t seem to be doing anything of the sort is probably a fairly good indication that we’re safe, at least for now.