Aggressive rhetoric from US and North Korean leaders highlights an increased risk of escalation

Alison Evans, Deputy Head of Asia Pacific Country Risk, IHS Markit:

“US President Donald Trump’s citing of unprecedented ‘fire and fury’ in response to any threat to the US, and the subsequent North Korean reference to contingency planning for a missile strike on Guam,  make a negotiated settlement more problematic.

North Korea is likely to continue testing and advancing its weapons capabilities undeterred by US pressure or UN sanctions. Even a limited pre-emptive military strike by the US or its allies would be almost certain to draw a retaliation by North Korea, risking a nuclear conflict.

The continuing US demand for North Korean denuclearisation as a precondition for talks narrows the diplomatic and other non-military options available to the alliance.”

Karl Dewey, CBRN Analyst, Jane’s by IHS Markit

“Brinkmanship is highly psychological and the potential for miscalculation is high, particularly as so little is known about North Korea’s true preferences and threat perceptions.  If this rhetoric continues both sides may find themselves trapped into a conducting a military response that could be devastating for the region. For North Korea, the threat against Guam is very specific and sets a bar to be measured against. Not following through could be seen as a lack of resolve.

The ability to hit the US mainland is part of Pyongyang’s efforts ensure the US and its allies do not embark on a programme of regime change. Despite the apparent success of its ICBM programme and ability to mount nuclear weapons onto its missiles, there is still debate over whether the North’s re-entry vehicles (RVs) are capable of surviving re-entry, as the 28 July Hwasong-14 (KN-20) test appears to have disintegrated upon re-entering the atmosphere. Nevertheless, there could be a number of reasons for the debris seen in the footage, including the burn up of second stage, or that the additional pressures on the RV created by the lofted trajectory caused a breakup, but the RV may still be viable for a normal trajectory.

In May 2016, after analysing the video of the KN-08 and mock-up of the nuclear warhead, Jane’s by IHS Markit assessed, with reasonable confidence, that the RV for that missile was viable and would survive re-entry. Even if the North is experiencing difficulties with its RVs, it appears that it will only be a matter of time before they achieve this and can hit the US.

This closing window itself may be a source of pressure on Trump, who may feel compelled to act before this is demonstrated. Unilateral US action, however, could have serious implications for Seoul and Tokyo.

From the North Korean perspective all sanctions are part of a programme of isolation and regime change.  They argue that talks on nuclear disarmament need to be seen in a global context, and not about their programme in particular. The US insistence on a stopping of nuclear activity as a pre-condition for talks are seen by some in the US as a way of preventing the reward for ‘bad behaviour’, but this position is counter-productive and ignores the North’s perspective that this is a pillar of its survival. There are also practical complications in verifying that the North has stopped its nuclear and missile activities. North Korea will likely better respond to calls for talks when such terms are dropped and, from their perspective, talks are based on equal terms.”