Don't hold your breath waiting for a war with North Korea
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Though President Trump’s aggressive “fire and fury” comments aimed at North Korea grabbed headlines this month, a closer look at American activity over the past few weeks seem to indicate that war is far from imminent. 

Analysts have not seen measures taken by the U.S. military that would be necessary to prepare for war on the Korean peninsula. The 35,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, while a potent force, are meant to serve as what military planners refer to as a “tripwire”, a first line of defense which if engaged would trigger the intervention of American forces from Japan, Guam, Saipan, Hawaii and the continental U.S. 

Simply put, there has been no buildup of extra U.S. military assets in the region over the past month.

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The USS Ronald Reagan, the one U.S. aircraft carrier in the Asia-Pacific, is currently at port in Yokosuka, Japan. Presently, there are no other U.S. aircraft carriers in the area.

 

Additional U.S. Marines, soldiers and squadrons have not been deployed to the Pacific in any significant way, nor has there been a wide call back of personnel on emergency leave.

Beyond this, American military families have not been evacuated from South Korea, Japan, Saipan or Guam, nor has the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning to American citizens living in the Asia Pacific, particularly in Northeast Asian countries.

In short, from the perspective of military planning, there is nothing to indicate that a U.S. military operation of the size required for war on the Korean peninsula is in the making. 

Some argue that President Trump's recent bellicose statements about North Korea are vintage Trump which ought not to be taken literally but should be taken seriously. They assert that his intended audience is China to convey that their continued inaction to reign in the North may result in U.S. military operations on the Korean peninsula, disrupting the region’s stability upon which Beijing depends for its economic growth and security. 

For its part, Beijing believes that it has taken sufficient action on its end by supporting recently levied UN sanctions against North Korea that it claims will deliver a hit to the Chinese economy. Furthermore, its state newspaper, the Global Times, published a statement on August 11 advising that China should remain neutral in the event that North Korea attacks the U.S. unprovoked.  

North Korea’s initial response to President Trump’s rough talk consisted of threats by its military to bomb the waters near Guam. While Guam is a U.S. territory of strategic value that hosts various U.S. military assets, it should be noted that the North Korean threats were carefully aimed at Guam — not at cities on America’s mainland — perhaps signifying attempts by Pyongyang to bluff and save face. 

Some accuse Trump of having manufactured a near-crisis with his public statements that were not coordinated with U.S. allies in the Pacific nor with his Secretary of State, Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonOvernight Defense: Trump recognizes Jerusalem as Israel's capital | Mattis, Tillerson reportedly opposed move | Pentagon admits 2,000 US troops are in Syria | Trump calls on Saudis to 'immediately' lift Yemen blockade Trump has yet to name ambassadors to key nations in Mideast Mattis, Tillerson warned Trump of security concerns in Israel embassy move MORE

At the same time, history has shown that comments by U.S. presidents typically do not change North Korean behavior. Some presidents have been calm and quiet on North Korea while others have been more outspoken. In the end, North Korean conduct and strategy have remained unchanged in either case. 

While President Trump rightly sees utility in some level of unpredictability stirred by his statements towards U.S. adversaries, it is important that this tactic not be overused as U.S. allies in the Pacific and elsewhere will come to wonder whether or not Washington is serious with its strategic behavior, particularly if there is no follow through on U.S. tough talk. 

In the short term, however, Trump’s threats towards Pyongyang may have just averted miscalculation and supported deterrence by clearly restating U.S. policy towards the defense of American territories, allies and interests. 

This approach — accompanied by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s and Secretary of Defense James MattisJames Norman MattisOvernight Defense: Trump recognizes Jerusalem as Israel's capital | Mattis, Tillerson reportedly opposed move | Pentagon admits 2,000 US troops are in Syria | Trump calls on Saudis to 'immediately' lift Yemen blockade Trump has yet to name ambassadors to key nations in Mideast Mattis, Tillerson warned Trump of security concerns in Israel embassy move MORE’ jointly-authored August 14 Wall Street Journal opinion piece, in which they insisted that the U.S. is not seeking regime change in North Korea — were likely factors in Kim Jong Un's decision to delay firing missiles at Guam. 

Regardless, from Clinton to Obama, U.S. administrations have opted against the military option for addressing the North Korea nuclear threat given understandable objections from Seoul and the risk of mass casualties. His loud public statements aside, signs indicate that President Trump, like his predecessors, will choose against the force of arms and pursue the following three measures: 1) acquiescence; 2) the adoption of a long-term strategy of containment and deterrence; and 3) working with Beijing to put in place a framework to de-escalate tensions and place a freeze on Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests. 

These steps are likely to be pursued through quiet discussions between Washington and Beijing while also involving Seoul and, to a lesser extent, Tokyo and Moscow. Negotiations will be drawn out due to the hardening and persistence of Washington’s and Beijing’s conflicting interests. The U.S. seeks to maintain its role of security guarantor in Asia, while China wants to kick America out of the region, and become the sole hegemon in the West Pacific. 

Any agreement between the U.S. and China on these various fronts will take time given the lack of trust between the two powers. 

The bottom line is that, despite all the noise, it appears that efforts are being made to resolve this crisis on the Korean Peninsula with a diplomatic outcome rather than with fire and fury. 

Ted Gover, Ph.D. is an instructor of political science at Central Texas College, USMC Base Camp Pendleton, California.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.