Why this US-North Korea standoff is different

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un this week stepped back from his threats to fire missiles toward the U.S. territory of Guam following a week of increasingly violent rhetoric between his isolated nation and President Trump.

The dispute, which appeared to reach a head after more than a year of Kim accelerating his country’s nuclear and missile weapons programs, calls to mind the nuclear crisis between North Korea and the United States nearly 25 years ago during the Clinton administration.

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Former Defense Secretary William Perry has said the United States was on the brink of war with North Korea in the summer of 1994, when the Pentagon had tentative plans to send cruise missiles and stealth fighter jets to strike a small nuclear reactor within the country.

The plan — meant to prevent North Korea from using raw material to make nuclear bombs — was rejected in favor of tougher United Nation sanctions.

North Korea subsequently agreed to freeze its nuclear program.

Experts on the volatile region said the similarities are apparent between the saber rattling now and then, but a more equipped North Korea is changing the approach to diplomacy with the country.

Last week, North Korea threatened to launch ballistic missiles at waters off the coast of Guam, after Trump warned the nation it would “be met with fire and fury ... like the world has never seen,” if it continued to make threats against the U.S. and its allies.

And on Monday, Defense Secretary James Mattis warned that a missile launched at the United States or its territories would be considered an act of war.

“If they shoot at the United States, I’m assuming they hit the United States. If they do that, it’s game on,” Mattis told reporters.

Lisa Collins, an expert on North Korea at the think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the exchange of rhetoric between North Korea and the administration, though more heated, is not so different compared to 1994.

“What’s different this time is North Korea’s development of its technology,” Collins told The Hill.

She pointed to the recent Defense Intelligence Agency assessment, which found that North Korea had produced a miniaturized nuclear weapon that could be placed on a ballistic missile.

There is some difference of opinion among experts on how advanced North Korea really is in terms of such a goal, but development of technology “could potentially change the strategic positions of the different countries in the region,” she said.

Collins could also not recall a time when North Korea had announced a specific missile launch before it occurred, indicating a more emboldened nation.

Bruce Klingner, the CIA’s Korea branch chief during the 1994 crisis, agreed that North Korea’s technological breakthroughs have changed the game, as have the uncertainty of Trump’s comments “and whether they represent a signal of resolve or a signal of impending action.”

While Trump has stuck to threatening rhetoric, Mattis and Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonThe four China strategies Trump or Biden will need to consider Trump flails as audience dwindles and ratings plummet How the US could respond to Russia's support of the Taliban MORE have instead said the United States is “replacing the failed policy of strategic patience ... with a new policy of strategic accountability” — comments more in line with those of former President Clinton, Klingner said.

“The biggest unpredictable variable is President Trump,” he said. “His comments would suggest we are on the cusp of initialing a preventative attack with North Korea, yet subsequent statements by senior officials suggest that not only are no military movements in place but that the other officials suggest no military action is imminent.”

But Klingner added, “At this point, we were closer to war in 1993-1994.”

A retired Marine Corps general who asked not to be named told The Hill that North Korea has historically been extremely difficult to deal and reason with, but agreed the level of brinkmanship has increased compared to 1994 due to technological advances. 

“I think the stakes are raised now because it was always, ‘they don’t have the technology, we don’t need to negotiate,’ the general said.

“Even when we were fighting them in the Korean War there wasn’t a sense they could change our life as we know it in the homeland. Now we’ve got that risk.”

While the retired general stopped short of offering an endorsement of Trump’s rhetoric, he said “it’s maybe time somebody does say something like this to this guy.”

“All we’ve been doing is kicking the ball down the road, but now he’s on the edge of having the technology and using it.”