For years, the world has watched the advance of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, anxiously pondering one question: if Pyongyang finally gained the ability to threaten the U.S. mainland, would the regime become more aggressive? In July, the successful test of the first North Korean ICBM signaled that North Korea had crossed that critical threshold. This week’s threat against Guam marks a new model of coercion for North Korea, one whose implications stretch far beyond the small island territory.
There is no indication from U.S. official statements that they understood the red line existed. Analysts have warned that miscalculation and misperception could escalate tensions with North Korea into a war that no one wants. This week showed how that could occur. Correctly discerning and responding to this threat will be central to maintaining stability in the next critical weeks.
For years, expert observers have warned that a North Korea armed with an ICBM could become more aggressive toward its neighbors, attempting to constrain the United States or its allies from responding fully by threatening a nuclear retaliation. U.S. leaders discovered that China and the Soviet Union, two communist countries with expansionist policies, could be deterred from nuclear attack but containing of their aggressive tendencies was a persistent challenge.
North Korea’s threat against Guam takes a step toward validating these concerns, but does so in a nuanced and troubling way. On August 8, North Korean state media outlet KCNA released a statement issuing its customary warnings about the proximity of U.S. forces, specifically a routine operation the day before of U.S. B-1B bombers with South Korean fighters which are stationed at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam. Then, the statement departed from the usual hysterical rhetoric, warning that North Korean strategic forces were “carefully examining the operational plan for making an enveloping fire at the areas around Guam.”
It identified a specific missile—the recently-tested Hwasong-12 intermediate range missile first tested successfully in May which proved some of the technology for the July test of the Hwasong-14 ICBM—and said that the plan would soon be presented to Kim Jong Un for his decision. Two days later, on August 10th, KCNA released a second statement detailing the plan and the proposed missile trajectories: North Korea would simultaneously fire four missiles, which would overfly Japan and detonate over waters “30 to 40 km from Guam.”
In important ways, this is an unusual statement for a regime that routinely threatens the U.S. homeland with nuclear annihilation. It warns not that strikes against Guam could kill American citizens but presents a much more credible scenario: a highly destabilizing demonstration of North Korean missiles if the United States does not halt B-1B flights. The threat signals an alarming new coercive vocabulary for North Korea: a willingness to posture its missile forces for coercive purposes. The North Korean threat is clear, specific, coercive, and relatively credible. It puts the United States in a difficult position: either continue the B-1B flights and risk a launch toward Guam, or pause the flights and risk being seen as acquiescing to a North Korean threat. In so doing, the largely symbolic B-1B flights have become a symbolic test of resolve.
Additionally, it forces U.S. leaders to decide whether to attempt intercept of the missiles, should they be launched. It was no accident that KCNA threatened to fire four missiles. A small salvo complicates the U.S. decision. With AEGIS destroyers and a THAAD battery on Guam, the U.S. has significant missile defense capability in the region. But these systems are not perfect and a failed intercept attempt would provide Pyongyang with valuable information. If intercept is attempted, all four would have to be defeated successfully. If the United States has confidence that the missiles will miss Guam as planned, it may be preferable to allow them to splash down into the sea.
However, the implications of this threat go far beyond Guam. This kind of coercive threat is applicable to other situations and can credibly be escalated in the future. If the United States stands down the B-1B flights during the upcoming August exercises, the regime may threaten other deterrence operations next (with nonlethal strikes, or limited lethality strikes against military assets). Possible targets include U.S. amphibious forces training with South Korean counterparts, or the bases that these forces use; U.S. or allied naval forces conducting demining or anti-submarine drills; the THAAD missile battery in South Korea; U.S. logistics ships that Pyongyang argues are deploying forces to the region, and others. In so doing, the regime may hope to dismantle the U.S. and allied deterrence posture piece by piece.
It is an interesting inversion of the standard pattern. In the past, the United States had issued firm and credible threats to deter North Korean aggression, only obliquely making reference to its nuclear capabilities. Now, Trump has issued vague and improvised nuclear threats to deter North Korean rhetorical statements, a practice normally left to KCNA. North Korea, which had perceived regular test launches of U.S. Minuteman ICBMs into the South Pacific as a signal toward them, has seemingly turned the tables.
It may yet emerge that this threat over Guam is simply a prelude to North Korea making a new proposal for negotiations or that the threat could evaporate without another reference. (Ending the largely symbolic flights would be a small price to pay for serious negotiations with Pyongyang.) But, if not, preventing and responding to coercive threats of this type may be the real challenge of containing a nuclear-armed North Korea.
As Defense Secretary Jim Mattis reiterated this week, U.S. military preponderance ensures that any major nuclear or conventional attack would culminate in the end of the regime. On the other hand, resisting limited North Korean coercive threats will require patience, careful conservation of U.S. credibility, and close coordination with allies—all of which has been in short supply of late.
The first step in maintaining stability on the peninsula is to clearly understand the threat over Guam and to coordinate with allies in crafting a deliberate response. If B-1B flights are to continue, they must be supplemented by tension reductions and deterrence measures to assure Pyongyang that it can back down from its Guam threat without losing face. Establishing military-to-military contacts could help to avoid misperception in the future. And U.S. officials must engage South Korea and Japan to develop a strategy to prevent and respond to these kinds of threats in the future.
Dr. Adam Mount (@ajmount) is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Previously, he served as director of the Council on Foreign Relations Independent Task Force on North Korea.