Are the US and North Korea on the brink of nuclear war?


(Agencies) LONDON: Donald Trump has said he will launch “fire and fury like the world has never seen”.+ North Korea has promised to get its revenge “a thousand fold” on the US for any attack. But is the world really on the brink of a Third World War? Experts say probably not, while pointing out that it is easy to see how we might get there. A general consensus is that the US President’s statements are just bluster, although many emphasise the fact that bluster has an unfortunate history of leading to war.
The new escalation is the latest in an ongoing ratcheting up of tensions between Pyongyang and Washington, and came after a report that claimed North Korea had developed nuclear weapons small enough that they could be flown all the way to the US mainland and detonated there. After that came what prominent arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis has described a “carnival of bellicosity”.
Trump’s “fire and fury” statement is unprecedented in US relations with North Korea and markedly similar to the kind of rhetoric that emerges from Pyongyang. North Korea appeared to call the US leader’s bluff within hours of his statement, announcing it was exploring the possibility of attacking Guam+ , a US pacific territory that among other things houses strategic bombers. Crucially, this statement appears to have been formulated in response to the US flying two B1-B bombers over the Korean Peninsula on Monday, a repeat of a similar operation carried out in July — and therefore not in response to Trump’s warning. Rex Tillerson, the President’s foreign policy chief, moved to calm the situation and advised the US public not to worry. The message of de-escalation appears not to have influenced Trump, however, who woke up and tweeted that the US nuclear arsenal was “more powerful than ever before” — though adding that he hoped never to use it. Nevertheless, the US leader’s shift to outright belligerence towards North Korea has given rise to widespread fears around the prospect of a major global nuclear conflict, the fallout from which would inevitably see the destruction of large parts of the world.No, probably not, according to experts contacted by The Independent. Trump’s comments offer a significant and meaningful change in the rhetoric being exchanged between North Korea and the US — but they appear to be just rhetoric, for now. “The first thing I would say is that I’m not sure that Trump’s comments change the fundamental calculus on the Korean peninsula, in the North or in the South,” said James Hannah, assistant head of the Asia programme at Chatham House. “What’s obviously changed is the Trump factor and he has in a way emulated the North Korea bellicosity approach.” Even the President’s voice is just one among many — albeit that of the Commander in Chief — in the White House, and is by far the most aggressive. Rex Tillerson said there was no “imminent threat” and that “Americans should sleep well at night”, while explaining that the President had adopted such a confrontational tone because this was language that Kim Jong-Un could understand. That does not mean there was not reason to be concerned.
“Having followed North Korea for a long time, I am getting more worried,” said Aiden Foster-Carter, honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea at Leeds University. “I worry about rhetoric getting out of control on either side and this leading to a miscalculation of some sort.”
Professor Foster-Carter stressed that he was not suggesting Trump’s comments or the US approach was anything like that of North Korea, only that there was an increasing degree of public enmity between the two sides. North Korea demonstrates better than any nation that bluster is important.
“I worry about loose rhetoric,” said Jeffrey Lewis, an adjunct professor at the James Martin Centre for Nonproliferation Studies. “Because I worry that allies or the North Koreans won’t understand that it’s just bluster. But having said that, I don’t believe that it’s evidence that the US is going to attack the North Koreans. In a strange way it’s reassuring because it’s clear he doesn’t know what to do; if he had some plan to attack them, he wouldn’t be talking about his plan to attack them.”Perhaps the most terrifying thing about the situation is how impossible that question to answer; there are simply too many disparate elements, each of them unpredictable on their own and amounting to a situation in which almost anything could happen.
“If the calculus hasn’t changed, what is being introduced is a greater level of unpredictability and rhetorical tension,” says Hannah. “Which has a number of knock-on effects. If the US is unpredictable, Trump supporters might see that as a pro — taking a harder line and putting pressure on the North and conceivably on China, by eventuating the threat. But equally, that unpredictability doesn’t wash well with US allies in the region, like Japan or South Korea. It creates a sort of echo chamber of inflated rhetoric.”
And with Trump in power, rhetoric tends to dominate the debate — and often become the debate. “If you do raise the rhetoric then I suppose there’s a greater worry that the chance of action in some quarters is increased,” adds Hannah.
It all really comes down to whether North Korea thinks that Trump’s statements actually mean anything. If he is just blustering — an activity they know well — then very little has changed; if they think that the rhetorical stance is something that puts them in danger, then conflict could arise.