Last week, North Korea announced that its missiles would be ready to strike the U.S. mainland. A report distributed through its state-run news agency, KCNA, shows the country’s leader Kim Jong Un and his top military chiefs planning military attacks on Hawaii, Washington, D.C., Austin and Los Angeles.
North Korea cut its military hotline with South Korea, the last direct link between the two nations, and declared a “state of war” with its southern neighbor. The declaration came after the U.S. joined with South Korea for military drills. While these reports point to an agitated and increasingly desperate North Korea, the U.S. should wait before jumping into conflict on the Korean peninsula.
While North Korea’s bite has been consistently less severe than its bark, U.S. analysts and policymakers are not willing to merely dismiss it as pure bluster. The country’s increased missile launch tests and nuclear provocations in the last year have made its threats more credible. North Korean missiles currently in development could one day have the ability to strike Guam and Alaska.
The likelihood of a full-scale attack on the mainland U.S. is highly unlikely. North Korea’s increasingly bellicose rhetoric is indeed frightening, but we need to keep in mind these reports and “mainland U.S. strike plans” were created for internal consumption to drum up support for Kim Jong Un.
Kim Jong Un, who took power after his father Kim Jong-Il’s death one year ago, has been unable to incite lesser international economic sanctions. He has also struggled to gain leadership credentials despite embracing “military first” policies; this aggressive posturing in response to the U.S.-South Korea military drills could be his way of attaining that authority.
What the U.S. remains most concerned with now is the threat the North poses to the South, as it has pledged all military resources to defend South Korea. In case of conflict between the North and South, the U.S. might have no other choice than to get involved on the South’s behalf due to its alliance and its desire to deter North Korea’s nuclear program. While China would be the best candidate for helping quell North Korea because of its close ties to the country, China does not want refugees from the North flooding its border and, therefore, may not be very willing to step in.
There is fear that an agitated North Korea could take to more regional escalation and plan hits against South Korea and Japan. Because the impoverished country barely has a functional conventional military, its short and mid-range rocket capabilities become more of a plausible threat to neighbors.
These threats may just be North Korea’s way of forcing the U.S. and South Korea to the negotiating table, but in the meantime, the U.S. cannot afford another intervention in another war. To avoid one, the U.S. should help subdue rising North-South tensions by conducting its military exercises elsewhere. These exercises can happen at another location that will run less risk of angering Kim Jong Un and souring the atmosphere.
If we give the young and inexperienced Kim Jong Un reason for retaliation and credibility to do so, it will only hurt disarmament efforts down the line to get all parties to the negotiating table. We can be smarter about strategy regarding North Korea’s nuclear deterrence.