The Korean missile crisis

Scott D. Sagan writes: It is time for the U.S. government to admit that it has failed to prevent North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles that can reach the United States. North Korea no longer poses a nonproliferation problem; it poses a nuclear deterrence problem. The gravest danger now is that North Korea, South Korea, and the United States will stumble into a catastrophic war that none of them wants.

The world has traveled down this perilous path before. In 1950, the Truman administration contemplated a preventive strike to keep the Soviet Union from acquiring nuclear weapons but decided that the resulting conflict would resemble World War II in scope and that containment and deterrence were better options. In the 1960s, the Kennedy administration feared that Chinese leader Mao Zedong was mentally unstable and proposed a joint strike against the nascent Chinese nuclear program to the Soviets. (Moscow rejected the idea.) Ultimately, the United States learned to live with a nuclear Russia and a nuclear China. It can now learn to live with a nuclear North Korea.

Doing so will not be risk free, however. Accidents, misperceptions, and volatile leaders could all too easily cause disaster. The Cold War offers important lessons in how to reduce these risks by practicing containment and deterrence wisely. But officials in the Pentagon and the White House face a new and unprecedented challenge: they must deter North Korean leader Kim Jong Un while also preventing U.S. President Donald Trump from bumbling into war. U.S. military leaders should make plain to their political superiors and the American public that any U.S. first strike on North Korea would result in a devastating loss of American and South Korean lives. And civilian leaders must convince Kim that the United States will not attempt to overthrow his regime unless he begins a war. If the U.S. civilian and military leaderships perform these tasks well, the same approach that prevented nuclear catastrophe during the Cold War can deter Pyongyang until the day that communist North Korea, like the Soviet Union before it, collapses under its own weight.

The international relations scholar Robert Litwak has described the current standoff with North Korea as “the Cuban missile crisis in slow motion,” and several pundits, politicians, and academics have repeated that analogy. But the current Korean missile crisis is even more dangerous than the Cuban one. For one thing, the Cuban missile crisis did not involve a new country becoming a nuclear power. In 1962, the Soviet Union was covertly stationing missiles and nuclear warheads in Cuba when U.S. intelligence discovered the operation. During the resulting crisis, Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro feared an imminent U.S. air strike and invasion and wrote to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev advocating a nuclear strike on the United States “to eliminate such danger forever through an act of clear legitimate defense, however harsh and terrible the solution would be.” When Khrushchev received the message, he told a meeting of his senior leadership, “This is insane; Fidel wants to drag us into the grave with him!” Luckily, the Soviet Union maintained control of its nuclear weapons, and Castro did not possess any of his own; his itchy fingers were not on the nuclear trigger.

Kim, in contrast, already presides over an arsenal that U.S. intelligence agencies believe contains as many as 60 nuclear warheads. Some uncertainty still exists about whether North Korea can successfully mount those weapons on a missile capable of hitting the continental United States, but history cautions against wishful thinking. The window of opportunity for a successful U.S. attack to stop the North Korean nuclear program has closed. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. preparing to put nuclear bombers back on 24-hour alert not seen since the Cold War

Defense One reports: The U.S. Air Force is preparing to put nuclear-armed bombers back on 24-hour ready alert, a status not seen since the Cold War ended in 1991.

That means the long-dormant concrete pads at the ends of this base’s 11,000-foot runway — dubbed the “Christmas tree” for their angular markings — could once again find several B-52s parked on them, laden with nuclear weapons and set to take off at a moment’s notice.

“This is yet one more step in ensuring that we’re prepared,” Gen. David Goldfein, Air Force chief of staff, said in an interview during his six-day tour of Barksdale and other U.S. Air Force bases that support the nuclear mission. “I look at it more as not planning for any specific event, but more for the reality of the global situation we find ourselves in and how we ensure we’re prepared going forward.”

Goldfein and other senior defense officials stressed that the alert order had not been given, but that preparations were under way in anticipation that it might come. That decision would be made by Gen. John Hyten, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, or Gen. Lori Robinson, the head of U.S. Northern Command. STRATCOM is in charge of the military’s nuclear forces and NORTHCOM is in charge of defending North America.

Putting the B-52s back on alert is just one of many decisions facing the Air Force as the U.S. military responds to a changing geopolitical environment that includes North Korea’s rapidly advancing nuclear arsenal, President Trump’s confrontational approach to Pyongyang, and Russia’s increasingly potent and active armed forces. [Continue reading…]

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Bill Clinton sought State’s permission to meet with Russian nuclear official during Obama uranium decision

The Hill reports: As he prepared to collect a $500,000 payday in Moscow in 2010, Bill Clinton sought clearance from the State Department to meet with a key board director of the Russian nuclear energy firm Rosatom — which at the time needed the Obama administration’s approval for a controversial uranium deal, government records show.

Arkady Dvorkovich, a top aide to then-Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and one of the highest-ranking government officials to serve on Rosatom’s board of supervisors, was listed on a May 14, 2010, email as one of 15 Russians the former president wanted to meet during a late June 2010 trip, the documents show.

“In the context of a possible trip to Russia at the end of June, WJC is being asked to see the business/government folks below. Would State have concerns about WJC seeing any of these folks,” Clinton Foundation foreign policy adviser Amitabh Desai wrote the State Department on May 14, 2010, using the former president’s initials and forwarding the list of names to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s team.

The email went to two of Hillary Clinton’s most senior advisers, Jake Sullivan and Cheryl Mills.

The approval question, however, sat inside State for nearly two weeks without an answer, prompting Desai to make multiple pleas for a decision. [Continue reading…]

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FBI uncovered Russian bribery plot before Obama administration approved controversial nuclear deal with Moscow

The Hill reports: Before the Obama administration approved a controversial deal in 2010 giving Moscow control of a large swath of American uranium, the FBI had gathered substantial evidence that Russian nuclear industry officials were engaged in bribery, kickbacks, extortion and money laundering designed to grow Vladimir Putin’s atomic energy business inside the United States, according to government documents and interviews.

Federal agents used a confidential U.S. witness working inside the Russian nuclear industry to gather extensive financial records, make secret recordings and intercept emails as early as 2009 that showed Moscow had compromised an American uranium trucking firm with bribes and kickbacks in violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, FBI and court documents show.

They also obtained an eyewitness account — backed by documents — indicating Russian nuclear officials had routed millions of dollars to the U.S. designed to benefit former President Bill Clinton’s charitable foundation during the time Secretary of State Hillary Clinton served on a government body that provided a favorable decision to Moscow, sources told The Hill.

The racketeering scheme was conducted “with the consent of higher level officials” in Russia who “shared the proceeds” from the kickbacks, one agent declared in an affidavit years later.

Rather than bring immediate charges in 2010, however, the Department of Justice (DOJ) continued investigating the matter for nearly four more years, essentially leaving the American public and Congress in the dark about Russian nuclear corruption on U.S. soil during a period when the Obama administration made two major decisions benefiting Putin’s commercial nuclear ambitions. [Continue reading…]

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Deadly overconfidence: Trump thinks missile defenses work against North Korea, and that should scare you

Ankit Panda and Vipin Narang write: Could a president’s overconfidence in U.S. defensive systems lead to deadly miscalculation and nuclear armageddon? Yes. Yes, it could. Last Wednesday, referring to potential American responses to North Korea’s missile and nuclear program, President Donald Trump told Sean Hannity “We have missiles that can knock out a missile in the air 97 percent of the time, and if you send two of them it’s gonna get knocked out.” If Trump believes — or is being told — that American missile defenses are that accurate, not only is he factually wrong, he is also very dangerously wrong. This misperception could be enough to lead the United States into a costly war with devastating consequences.

Here’s why: If Trump believes U.S. missile defenses work this effectively, he might actually think a first strike attempt to disarm North Korea of its missile and nuclear forces would successfully spare U.S. cities from North Korean nuclear retaliation. They probably wouldn’t. Believing that each ground-based midcourse missile defense (GMD) interceptor can provide anything close to a 97 percent interception rate against retaliation raises the temptation to attempt a so-called “splendid first strike” based on the assumption that missile defenses can successfully intercept any leftover missiles North Korea could then fire at the United States.

In this article, we first lay out the complexity of American missile defenses and explain why it’s way off the mark to believe U.S. ground-based missile defense interceptors are even close to as effective as Trump suggested. We then explain how overconfidence in national missile defense may tempt the president to consider a first strike with no actual guarantee that it can spare an American city — or multiple cities — from potential North Korean thermonuclear retaliation. For a president who has already expressed an inclination to visit “fire and fury” on Kim Jong Un and threatened to “totally destroy” his country, we’re obligated to take Trump’s misplaced confidence in GMD very seriously. His attraction to attempting a first strike will only grow if he is blind to an important gap in U.S. defenses. Not only might he still want to denuclearize North Korea by force, he might think it is actually possible to do so without putting the U.S. homeland at risk. [Continue reading…]

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North Korea says ‘a nuclear war may break out any moment’

The Associated Press reports: North Korea’s deputy U.N. ambassador warned Monday that the situation on the Korean peninsula “has reached the touch-and-go point and a nuclear war may break out any moment.”

Kim In Ryong told the U.N. General Assembly’s disarmament committee that North Korea is the only country in the world that has been subjected to “such an extreme and direct nuclear threat” from the United States since the 1970s — and said the country has the right to possess nuclear weapons in self-defense.

He pointed to large-scale military exercises every year using “nuclear assets” and said what is more dangerous is what he called a U.S. plan to stage a “secret operation aimed at the removal of our supreme leadership.” [Continue reading…]

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If Trump doesn’t want a nuclear war with North Korea, a ‘No First Use’ pledge might work better than threats

Steven J. Brams writes: Donald Trump has threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea with “fire and fury” should it cross some ambiguous tripwire. By being vague about where that tripwire lies, Trump seems to believe that his threat, coupled with harsher economic sanctions, will force Kim Jong Un to back down.

But just the opposite seems to have occurred. Instead, a war of words has broken out between Trump and Kim. This underscores the dangers that arise when there are no clear policy guidelines about what conditions constitute a threat to peace and can lead to war. It also tells us what may happen when each leader plays a “madman strategy” — pretending to be a madman to induce his antagonist to capitulate.

Game theorists such as Thomas Schelling have pointed out that the madman strategy can sometimes get results. It is equivalent to throwing the steering wheel out the window of your car, in sight of your adversary, when playing a game of chicken — showing that you are not going to be able to swerve, so your adversary must do so to avoid a head-on collision. Clearly, chicken is a dangerous game.

On the one hand, disaster might strike if both players stick with the madman strategy of making irrevocable commitments. The personal invectives and threats that Trump and Kim have hurled at each other might eventually be sufficient to cause one of them to escalate to nuclear war. If their posturing becomes real, this strategy’s logic leads to mutual catastrophe. [Continue reading…]

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Bob Corker on Trump’s biggest problem: The ‘castration’ of Rex Tillerson

Jackson Diehl writes: So is Donald Trump really leading the country toward World War III?

That is the warning that lingers from the broadside delivered by Bob Corker (Tenn.) during his Twitter war with Trump. Most Americans already take for granted much of what the Republican senator said — that the president peddles falsehoods online and has to be corralled by the “adults” around him. But the notion offered by the silver-haired, sober-minded chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee that Trump might launch a catastrophic war invites sleepless nights even for those who have already resigned themselves to four years of domestic chaos.

There would seem to be plenty to worry about, from Trump’s insistently hawkish statements about North Korea, including personal insults directed at ruler Kim Jong Un, to his showy announcement of “decertification” of the Iran nuclear deal Friday. Yet as Corker sees it, the biggest problem is that Trump is neutering his own chief diplomat, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and thereby inviting “binary” situations in which the United States will have to choose between war and a North Korea or Iran capable of threatening the United States with nuclear weapons.

“You cannot publicly castrate your own secretary of state without giving yourself that binary choice,” Corker told me in a phone interview Friday. “The tweets — yes, you raise tension in the region [and] it’s very irresponsible. But it’s the first part” — the “castration” of Tillerson — “that I am most exercised about.”

Tillerson gets low marks from many in Washington, both inside and outside the State Department, who think he has cooperated with Trump’s attempt to strip U.S. diplomacy of resources, authority and public profile. But as Corker sees it, Tillerson has been instrumental in opening a path away from confrontation with North Korea through quiet diplomacy with China.

It’s like the movie “Mean Girls,” except it’s in the White House. Unfortunately. (Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)
“The greatest diplomatic activities we have are with China, and the most important, and they have come a long, long way,” Corker said. “Some of the things we are talking about are phenomenal.” [Continue reading…]

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Demonstrating his status as a moron, Trump said he wanted to see a tenfold increase in nuclear arsenal

NBC News reports: President Donald Trump said he wanted what amounted to a nearly tenfold increase in the U.S. nuclear arsenal during a gathering this past summer of the nation’s highest ranking national security leaders, according to three officials who were in the room.

Trump’s comments, the officials said, came in response to a briefing slide he was shown that charted the steady reduction of U.S. nuclear weapons since the late 1960s. Trump indicated he wanted a bigger stockpile, not the bottom position on that downward-sloping curve.

According to the officials present, Trump’s advisers, among them the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, were surprised. Officials briefly explained the legal and practical impediments to a nuclear buildup and how the current military posture is stronger than it was at the height of the build-up. In interviews, they told NBC News that no such expansion is planned.

The July 20 meeting was described as a lengthy and sometimes tense review of worldwide U.S. forces and operations. It was soon after the meeting broke up that officials who remained behind heard Tillerson say that Trump is a “moron.” [Continue reading…]

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North Korean leader hails nuclear arsenal as ‘powerful deterrent’

The New York Times reports: The North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, has vowed to build up his country’s nuclear arsenal as a “powerful deterrent” to the United States, state media reported, hours after President Trump said that “only one thing will work” in dealing with the isolated country.

Mr. Kim made his comments on Saturday at a meeting of the Central Committee of his ruling Workers’ Party, the official Korean Central News Agency reported on Sunday. He also reconfirmed his policy of simultaneously seeking progress in his nuclear weapons program and pushing for economic growth in the face of expanding international sanctions.

The remarks indicated that Mr. Kim had no intention of retreating under American pressure even as South Korean officials and analysts worry that the North will conduct a major weapons test to observe the anniversary on Tuesday of the founding of the Workers’ Party.

North Korea’s nuclear weapons are a “powerful deterrent firmly safeguarding the peace and security in the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia,” Mr. Kim was quoted as saying, citing “protracted nuclear threats of the U.S. imperialists.” [Continue reading…]

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Trump fires more tweets at North Korea

If this is the calm before the storm, it’s not filled with an ominous silence, but on the contrary, another round of Trump’s seemingly portentous tweets.

He doesn’t seem to recognize that his efforts to promote alarm and uncertainty have become so repetitive that the only reaction they can be expected to provoke is another sigh — here he goes again.

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The world has nearly 15,000 nuclear weapons. This year’s Nobel Peace Prize honors the quest to abolish all of them

The Washington Post reports: An international group dedicated to eliminating nuclear weapons won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, a recognition of efforts to avoid nuclear conflict at a time of greater atomic menace than any other period in recent memory.

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons was honored for its work to foster a global ban on the destructive weapons, the Norwegian Nobel Committee said. The scrappy civil society movement was behind a successful push this summer for a U.N. treaty that prohibits nuclear weapons. It promotes nuclear disarmament around the world.

The award comes amid rising global alarm about a potential nuclear conflagration. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has hurled threats of nuclear missile strikes against the United States, and President Trump has warned he could “totally destroy North Korea” if provoked. The barbed exchanges have raised fears among many global leaders of a miscalculation that could end in cataclysmic conflict. [Continue reading…]

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Washington sends indecipherable signals to North Korea on nuclear/missile tests and war

Yesterday the New York Times reported: The Trump administration acknowledged on Saturday for the first time that it was in direct communication with the government of North Korea over its missile and nuclear tests, seeking a possible way forward beyond the escalating threats of a military confrontation from both sides.

“We are probing, so stay tuned,” Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said, when pressed about how he might begin a conversation with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, that could avert what many government officials fear is a significant chance of open conflict between the two countries.

“We ask, ‘Would you like to talk?’ We have lines of communications to Pyongyang — we’re not in a dark situation, a blackout,” he added. “We have a couple, three channels open to Pyongyang,” a reference to North Korea’s capital. [Continue reading…]

This afternoon, State Department spokesperson, Heather Nauert reiterated that channels of communication remain open — for now:


And yet Donald Trump says there’s no point engaging in talks:


While the State Department appears ignorant that North Korea has already demonstrated its nuclear capabilities:


And Trump insists he will succeed where Clinton, Bush, and Obama failed:


But as Jeffrey Lewis points out, Trump already failed, having claimed in January that North Korea testing an intercontinental ballistic missile “won’t happen” — until it did happen:


Perhaps the North Koreans have less hesitation about engaging in talks with the U.S. than difficulty believing there is anyone in this administration with whom they can productively engage.

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If North Korea fires an ICBM, the U.S. might have to shoot it down over Russia

Patrick Tucker writes: If Pyongyang fires a missile at the United States, its most-likely trajectory would take it over the North Pole. A U.S. attempt to shoot down that missile would probably occur within Russian radar space — and possibly over Russia itself. “It’s something we’re aware of,” Gen. Lori Robinson, who leads both U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, said Wednesday. “It’s something we work our way through.”

By year’s end, the U.S. will have deployed 44 ground-based interceptors, or GBIs: 40 at Fort Greeley, Alaska, and four at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. If deterrence fails, those interceptors would be the last line of defense against a North Korean missile. Each incoming ICBM might be met with four or more GBIs.

Last week, Joshua Pollack told an audience at the annual Air Force Association conference in Washington D.C. that the most probable intercept route aims the U.S. GBI “into the teeth of the Russian early warning net.”

The actual route will depend on the incoming missile’s course and speed, and just how quickly the U.S. system can react. Pollack, a researcher at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, elaborated in a subsequent writeup of his presentation. “Defending a West Coast target…means engaging the attacking [reentry vehicle] above the Russian Far East. Yikes.” [Continue reading…]

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Is North Korea going to risk an open air nuclear test?

Gregory Kulacki writes: North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho warned reporters in New York that his country may place a live nuclear warhead on one of its missiles, launch it, and then detonate the bomb in the open air.

It would not be the first time a country conducted such a test. The Soviet Union tried and failed in 1956. The United States was successful in 1962. But perhaps the most relevant historical precedent is the Chinese test in 1966.

At the time China was nearly as isolated as North Korea is today. The Soviet Union was no longer an ally but an adversary, massing military forces along China’s northern border. The United States kept the People’s Republic out of the United Nations and encircled its eastern coast with military bases in Japan, South Korea, the Republic of China on Taiwan, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand. Despite relentless Chinese propaganda proclaiming invincible revolutionary strength, China’s leaders felt extraordinarily insecure in the face of mounting Soviet and US pressure.

China set off its first nuclear explosion in October of 1964 and proved it could deliver a militarily useful nuclear weapon with a bomber less than a year later. But the Chinese leadership still felt a need to demonstrate it could launch a nuclear-armed missile and detonate it near a target hundreds of kilometers away. Only then could Chinese leaders feel confident they introduced the possibility of nuclear retaliation into the minds of US and Soviet officials considering a first strike. Chinese Marshall Nie Rongzhen, who led China’s nuclear weapons program and directed the test, summed up Chinese thinking in his memoir.

Mating an atomic bomb to a missile and conducting a real swords and spears test required facing very great risks. If the missile exploded at the launch site, if it fell in the middle of its flight or if it strayed out of the target area there would be unthinkable consequences. But I was deeply confident in our scientists, in our engineers and in our comrades working at the bases, who all possessed a spirit of high responsibility. Our research and design work was thorough and the medium-range missile we developed was reliable, with a highly successful launch rate. But more than that, in order to show our missiles were genuinely a weapon of great power that could be used in war we had to conduct this test of them together.

It is impossible to know if the individuals leading North Korea’s nuclear weapons program have the same degree of confidence in their technology and their personnel. But it is not hard to believe they feel the same urgent need to prove North Korea has a useable nuclear weapon, especially in the face of continuing US doubts. China’s expansive land mass allowed its leaders to conduct their test in a way that only put their own people at risk. But tiny North Korea must send its nuclear-armed missile out into the Pacific Ocean on a trajectory that would fly over Japan. If a failed North Korean test were to impact Japan it could precipitate a large-scale war in North-East Asia that could kill a million people on the first day.

Hopefully, avoiding that horrible outcome is the top priority of the North Koreans contemplating the test and the Americans considering responses. Kim and his cadres might feel less inclined to risk the test if it they were convinced President Trump and his national security team were already genuinely worried about the possibility of North Korean nuclear retaliation. Unfortunately, that’s an assurance Washington is unlikely to give Pyongyang. It still hasn’t given it to Beijing. US unwillingness to take the option of a first strike off the table, combined with demonstrations of resolve like the provocative flight of B1 bombers out of Guam and F15 fighters out of Okinawa, could tip North Korean scales in favor of conducting the test. [Continue reading…]

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Experts on North Korea’s latest threat: ‘This is how war by miscalculation starts’

Zack Beauchamp writes: Nuclear weapons can deter war, as we observed during the Cold War. The US and the Soviet Union worked hard to avoid outright conflict because no one believed they could win a nuclear war. In that sense, nuclear weapons enhance stability.

But the sense of security that nuclear weapons grant — because who in their right mind would attack a nuclear power? — can also encourage lower-level bad behavior. In 2010, for example, a North Korea submarine sank a South Korean destroyer, the ROKS Cheonan, without things escalating to war. The North gambled that the South wouldn’t risk being hit by Northern nukes (and its conventional arsenal) over one destroyer, and so wouldn’t respond with all-out war. It was right.

This paradox — where nuclear weapons deter full-scale war but at the same time encourage lower-level provocations — is why Kim thinks he can get away with threatening, and perhaps even firing on, US bombers.

Jeffrey Lewis, an expert on North Korea at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies, compares this dynamic to what happened when car manufacturers first began putting seat belts in cars: “There is some research about seat belts — early on, it seems, drivers with seat belts drove more aggressively,” Lewis says. “Nuclear weapons, for some leaders, do the same thing.”

North Korea hasn’t fired on any US warplanes since becoming a nuclear power in 2006, despite the US conducting many defensive flights like the one on Saturday. The reason it’s flexing its muscles now, experts say, is that Trump’s threats — like his tweet on Sunday warning that North Korea “won’t be around much longer!” if it keeps threatening the US — makes the North wary that the B-1B flights might be a prelude to an actual bombing run.

“DPRK really hates the B-1B flights,” Narang tweeted. “They’re clearly making the regime nervous about surprise attack.”

Now the Trump administration has two choices: stop doing these flights and look like you’re bowing to the North’s threats, or keep doing them and risk an actual exchange of fire. If the administration chooses the latter, then what happens if Pyongyang isn’t bluffing and actually fires on a US warplane? Does Trump back down, or does he respond with a strike of his own?

Lewis calls this scenario “the nightmare I’ve been warning about,” in which a war no one wants becomes plausible. [Continue reading…]

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North Korea says it has the right to shoot down U.S. warplanes

The New York Times reports: North Korea threatened on Monday to shoot down American warplanes even if they are not in the country’s airspace, as its foreign minister declared that President Trump’s threatening comments about the country and its leadership were “a declaration of war.”

“The whole world should clearly remember it was the U.S. who first declared war on our country,” the foreign minister, Ri Yong-ho, told reporters as he was leaving the United Nations after a week of General Assembly meetings in New York.

“Since the United States declared war on our country, we will have every right to make countermeasures, including the right to shoot down United States strategic bombers even when they are not inside the airspace border of our country,” he said.

Within hours, the Trump administration pushed back on Mr. Ri’s assertions, with the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, telling a news briefing in Washington: “We have not declared war on North Korea.”

The last time North Korea shot down an American warplane was in 1969, during the Nixon Administration, killing all 31 crew members of a spy plane that was flying off its coast.

Today, North Korea’s ability to make good on its threat is limited. Its air force is outdated, undertrained and frequently short of fuel. But the threat signaled another major escalation in a rhetorical exchange that many fear could push Pyongyang and Washington into a conflict, even an unintended one. [Continue reading…]

Issac Stone Fish writes: The heartening—and, for Americans, deeply sad—reality about this particular crisis is that neither Trump nor Pyongyang feel any fealty to the truth. Neither side believes the other will take his remarks at face value, and both sides seem to understand that the other rarely follows through. Kim “has been very threatening beyond a normal state,” Trump said in August, “and as I said, [his country] will be met with fire and fury, and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.” What was striking about Trump’s threat, beyond its immorality, was its impossibility. The world has seen genocides and nuclear destruction and horrific massacres—somehow, Trump would exceed all that? It was an inconceivable threat, similar to when North Korea, in April, hinted at plans to nuke Australia, a country it almost entirely ignores, because of its close ties with America. (Like Trump, Kim is no stranger to lobbing personal insults. He called Trump a “dotard”; Trump called Kim “little Rocket Man,” and described him as “obviously a madman.”)

And while North Korea now has the potential to successfully strike the United States with a nuclear-tipped weapon, it’s worth remembering that it acted far more provocatively during the Cold War, when it had a close relationship with the Soviet Union. At that time, Washington understood that North Korean provocations—even when they led to the loss of U.S. lives—could be countered with shows of military might, diplomacy, and restraint. War was unnecessary. In the bizarre 1976 Axe Murder Incident, North Koreans killed two U.S. soldiers for trimming a tree in the Demilitarized Zone, the border that separates the two sides of the peninsula. In the aptly named Operation Paul Bunyan, President Gerald Ford responded by “launching one of the strongest shows of combined U.S. land, air, naval and special operations forces in peacetime history,” according to journalist Gordon F. Sander, sending in a U.S. military team to finish hacking the tree. For the first and only known time in history, North Korean leader Kim Il Sung responded with a formal statement of regret, Sander wrote.

On one of my visits to Pyongyang, our North Korean guides proudly took us on a tour around the USS Pueblo, a U.S. navy spy ship. In 1968, North Korean soldiers seized the ship, killing a crew member in the process. The remaining 82 crew members were tortured and held hostage for nearly a year. U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson decided diplomacy was the best way to bring the Americans home—but officials in the Pentagon did consider responding with nuclear weapons, according to a now-declassified Pentagon memo. [Continue reading…]

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China watches in frustration as North Korea crisis enters dangerous spiral

The Washington Post reports: The view from China could hardly be much worse: the leaders of North Korea and the United States threatening to rain down total destruction on each other, while U.S. bombers and fighters stage a show of military might close to China’s shores.

In public, China’s foreign ministry has calmly advocated restraint and warned Pyongyang and Washington not add to fuel to the fire. But behind closed doors, experts said Sunday, it is as frustrated with North Korea, and with the situation, as it has ever been.

As North Korea’s dominant trading partner, China is widely seen as the key to solving the crisis, yet experts say its influence over Pyongyang has never been lower.

Unwilling to completely pull the plug, it has nevertheless agreed to a stiff package of sanctions at the United Nations and implemented them with unprecedented determination, experts say. [Continue reading…]

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North Korea’s top diplomat says strike against U.S. mainland is ‘inevitable’

The Washington Post reports: North Korea’s foreign minister warned Saturday that a strike against the U.S. mainland is “inevitable” because President Trump mocked leader Kim Jong Un with the belittling nickname “little rocketman.”

U.S. bombers escorted by fighter jets flew off the North Korean coast in a show of force shortly before Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho strode to the podium to address the United Nations General Assembly in New York, capping an extraordinary week of militaristic threats from both nations before an organization founded to maintain international peace and security.

Ri said that Trump’s bombast had made “our rockets’ visit to the entire U.S. mainland inevitable,” and linked it to the Trump’s insulting shorthand references to Kim.

Harsh sanctions placed on North Korea’s trade with the outside world will have no impact on its ability to complete building a nuclear bomb capable of reaching the United States, Ri said, suggesting that stage is imminent. [Continue reading…]

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