US warships and submarines are on the move. North Korea has carried out its largest ever live-fire drill. Washington and Pyongyang are trading inflammatory rhetoric on a weekly basis.
With all of this, it’s hard to know if war is actually imminent or if these are the growing pains of US President Donald Trump’s new administration figuring out how to deal with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un.
Daily reports of the fragile situation fuel worries that war is imminent. North Korea released what it claimed were photographs of its artillery drills. But, has it really reached a point of no return?
Just one spark
Analysts fear the situation is a tinderbox that could be set off by a small spark.
“The real question now is somebody going to make a stupid mistake, because some kind of minor escalation could get out of hand,” said Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation.
“It’s not so dangerous that I’m not going to go to (South) Korea in three weeks. But it is a dangerous situation that could get out of hand,” said Bennett.
However, even if a strategic miscalculation happened tomorrow, many experts believe war isn’t imminent.
If it was, the US armed forces would be placed on what is known as Defcon 2, according to Carl Schuster, a Hawaii Pacific University professor and former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center.
Schuster said such an announcement would be formal and public.
The US military would also step up training inside its borders and send a second aircraft carrier to East Asia – and carriers don’t move quickly.
US Pacific Command has said the USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group is expected to be off the Korean Peninsula by the end of April, but it has not announced any other carrier movement.
Schuster added it’s also important to watch what North Korean tanks and artillery are up to.
Big artillery movement out of shelters – which happened after North Korea’s Tuesday drills, which an official said were the largest-ever in the country’s history – is an ominous sign. However, US war planners would also be watching how much ammunition was moved for such event.
Schuster said the North Koreans would likely move much more ammunition for a battle as opposed to a drill – and that would be visible from satellite imagery.
Complicating matters is the fact that the presidency of Donald Trump has ushered in a new era of US tough talk and brinksmanship.
Trump and key members of his Cabinet have recently upped the rhetoric, saying “the era of strategic patience is over” and “all options are on the table” when it comes to dealing with the isolated state.
While the two refrains signal a shift in policy, they are lacking on specifics.
Trump is pushing China, the rogue state’s most important ally, to apply more economic pressure on North Korea to abandon its nuclear program.
US Vice President Mike Pence said the US would try to marshal support from its allies and North Korea’s neighbors, including China, and tighten the noose around Kim.
The concern is that applying pressure in coordination with others – strategies employed previously – will not make a difference. North Korea typically responds to sanctions with defiance.
Trump’s other public comments don’t help either. He often takes to Twitter to disparage or scold Pyongyang and recently told a room full of conservative journalists he isn’t sure Kim is “so strong like he says he is.”
Tong Zhao, a fellow at the Carnegie Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing, said the comment could further provoke North Korea.
“Being called weak will only encourage them to appear more strong,” he said.
The worry also is that the opaque strategy being pursued by Trump could be fueling some of the hostility from his North Korean counterpart.
“We really don’t know because we really don’t know what Trump is prepared to do,” said Bennett.
What Kim wants
Equally as important is the question of what Kim is prepared to do.
Though he has been portrayed as young and hotheaded, North Korea’s desire for nuclear weapons has a clear purpose: to ensure its survival.
“(North Korea) believes the only way to deter the US from attacking them, and maintaining the power of the Kim regime, is by the possession of nuclear weapons,” said Joe Bermudez, an analyst with 38 North, a North Korean monitoring group.
Bennett, the Rand analyst, said North Korea’s leaders look at states like Libya and worry they’ll go the way of Moammar Gadhafi if they accept US carrots in exchange for abandoning nuclear ambitions.
“He (Kim Jong Un) runs a terrible a state which is generously called Third World in terms of economics. And he’s got to have something to prove the strength of his leadership. He wants nuclear power and he wants to be able to say he’s a peer of the United States as a result of that,” Bennett added.
North Korean state media on Wednesday said the country “thinks of peace dearly and loves it more than anyone else, but neither fears a war nor is going to avoid it.”
The ongoing spat has left North Korea’s neighbors preparing for the worst.
Japan held their first evacuation drills last month and has put out guidance on what to do in the event of an attack. Americans in South Korea practiced evacuating the country in case of an attack last year.
Residents in the South Korean capital of Seoul hold preparation drills once or twice a year, but they’re often ignored. South Korea produces its own guidance documents on what to do in case of an emergency or war, but it’s not clear how many ended up in the hands of the public.
China has tried to play middleman, proposing potential deals to de-escalate the situation. So far, North Korea and the United States have both rejected them.
Avoiding large-scale conflict on the Korean Peninsula is China’s primary goal. Beijing worries about the cost of war in terms of life and capital but also the aftermath of a North Korean loss: a likely refugee influx into China and a unified Korea, allied with the United States, with US troops moving up to the North Korea-China border.
Analysts say all sides believe a full-scale conventional war would be devastating and not serve anybody’s ultimate interests.
Incidents in the recent past – including the 2010 sinking of a South Korean warship and the 2014 shelling of a South Korean island – haven’t led to war on the Korean Peninsula.