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Are U.S. and North Korea in a stalemate or on the cusp of confrontation?

USC experts react to the week’s escalating war of words from President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un

map of North Korea nuclear weapons
Though much uncertainty remains about North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, the fact that they developed these weapons at all is historic. (Photo/iStock)

Rhetoric over a nuclear threat from North Korea intensified this week as the isolated country threatened to retaliate against the United States over new trade sanctions recently approved by the U.N. Security Council.

The new restrictions on North Korean trade are expected to result in $1 billion a year in losses for Pyongyang. The resolution fully bans coal, iron and iron ore, as well as lead and lead ore.

North Korea’s foreign minister Ri Yong Ho denounced the new trade sanctions at a meeting also attended also by Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson in Manila on Monday. Yong Ho also rejected suggestions that North Korea should negotiate nuclear disarmament to ease sanctions. Meanwhile, North Korea, via state news media, threatened retaliation against the United States “thousands of times over.” The exchanges have escalated.

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump responded that the United States would respond with “fire and fury” to such threats, and the Dow Jones and S&P subsequently dipped. On Wednesday, North Korea mentioned the possibility of firing a medium- or long-range ballistic missile at Guam, the U.S. territory that is site of a key U.S. military base and home for an estimated 200,000 Americans.

USC experts on foreign policy and economics said that the inflamed rhetoric significantly diverges from the typical U.S. diplomatic response over a nuclear threat. They also noted that the prospect of a military or nuclear confrontation makes everyone nervous.

Is it a draw?

Words matter, the experts agreed, but this latest match may be a draw. Huge consequences loom for either side to initiate any military action or missile attack.

“This is all rhetoric,” said David C. Kang, a professor of international relations and business and director of the Korean Studies Institute at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Science. “Deterrence still works because we believe North Korea will fight back if we attack them first; they believe we will fight back if they attack us first. So there is no imminent threat, and all the rhetoric from both sides is simply restating the obvious.”

The recent exchange between Trump and North Korea is raising fears that the two countries would eventually clash. Anxiety shook the stock market earlier this week, ending a hot streak.

The situation has now become so unpredictable that any rational, logical conclusion of the outcome of this situation is impossible.

Nick Vyas

“The situation has now become so unpredictable that any rational, logical conclusion of the outcome of this situation is impossible, thus causing the jitters in the market and instability for many of the neighboring countries,” said Nick Vyas, executive director for the Center for Global Supply Chain Management and an assistant clinical professor of data science and operations at the USC Marshall School of Business.

“Unless there is an inside revolt within North Korea, the outlook for rationale diplomacy is less likely, especially if we continue to talk the flowery, retaliatory language without providing a face-saving escape window for the regime,” Vyas added. “The possible resolution might be placing the significant burden on China and others to step up and lead on diplomacy to resolve this before it gets out of control.”

China’s influence on North Korea

China has been a key partner in diplomacy with North Korea, assisting with deterrence; however, its influence is limited, said Clayton Dube, executive director of the U.S.-China Institute at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

North Korea zealously guards its sovereignty.

Clayton Dube

“North Korea zealously guards its sovereignty,” Dube said. “Kim Jong Un has executed officials thought to be too close to the Chinese. But more than that, China is completely unwilling to do anything that might yield a unified Korea allied with the United States.”

Dube noted that China is scarred by the 20th-century invasion and occupation of large parts of China by Japan, which began when the Japanese annexed Korea.

“China’s leaders don’t like North Korea’s monarchy, but they fear alternatives would be worse for China,” he said.

China shares international concerns about North Korea’s nuclear development — a situation that may have been its own making. Decades ago, Dube said, China assisted Pakistan with the development of its nuclear program — a move condemned by its neighbor, India.

Pakistan, meanwhile, is suspected of sharing China’s nuclear technology to aid North Korea’s nuclear program.

“China’s leaders probably regret that,” Dube said. “China’s leaders likely wish North Korea hadn’t come this far.”

A murky situation

As of Wednesday, the direction of the United States in the latest disagreement with North Korea was unclear. Tillerson defended Trump’s warning to North Korea, saying that the president is trying to communicate with Kim Jong Un in terms he would understand.

Also on Wednesday, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis warned that North Korea’s actions would be “grossly overmatched by ours” and said that it would lose in any arms race or conflict with the United States.

Jeffrey Fields, an associate professor for USC Dornsife’s School of International Relations, said the various messages coming from the Trump administration make the situation even murkier.

The North Korea nuclear situation is extremely difficult under any circumstance.

Jeffrey Fields

“The North Korea nuclear situation is extremely difficult under any circumstance,” said Fields, a former foreign affairs officer for the State Department who also has been a political-military analyst and senior adviser at the U.S. Department of Defense on the proliferation of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

“With the State Department absent senior leadership and direction from the secretary himself, it doesn’t bode well,” Fields said. “In a crisis like this, the secretary of state and the president should obviously be on the same page. But while Secretary Tillerson has kept the door open for direct negotiations with Pyongyang, President Trump’s ‘fire and fury’ rhetoric undermine him and needlessly inflame the situation.”

Going through the media

Foreign policy is usually conducted by diplomats talking to diplomats and generals talking to their military counterparts, said Tom Hollihan, a professor of communication at USC Annenberg and a faculty fellow in the USC Center on Public Diplomacy and the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy.

“Presidents should talk to their generals and their diplomats, but not conduct foreign policy through the media because to do so may only increase anxieties both overseas and in their homeland,” said Hollihan, who also advises political candidates and has coached Department of Defense officials on strategic communication.

This latest exchange is like playing Russian roulette with a crazy person.

Tom Hollihan

“This latest exchange is like playing Russian roulette with a crazy person,” Hollihan said. “Kim Jong Un may have made more advances in his weapons capabilities than we know.  We know that he had nuclear weapons and now that he has intercontinental ballistic missiles, but we were unsure that he had miniaturized the weapons so that the missiles could deliver it accurately to distant targets.”

Advancement in nuclear weapons

North Korea’s continued advancement in nuclear weapons development is very concerning, and testing indicates that the country is very focused on eventually developing a hydrogen bomb, said Bart Kosko, a professor of electrical engineering at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and a professor of law for the USC Gould School of Law.

“The crucial thing I would be concerned with is that last year, 2016, the North Koreans apparently ‘boosted’ a plutonium-based A-bomb,” Kosko said.

“Boosting injects heavy-hydrogen gas into the hollow plutonium core just as the conventional explosives crush or implode the core to induce nuclear fission,” Kosko said. “Boosting increases the yield of the A-bomb. That makes it easier to fit a smaller nuclear warhead on a missile. It is also a key step in using an A-bomb to set off an H-bomb and ultimately produce a thermonuclear warhead.

“The North Koreans quite likely don’t yet have an H-bomb, but that is clearly where they are headed,” he said. “Detonating even a crude H-bomb in outer space can produce an EMP [electromagnetic pulse], akin to an artificial aurora borealis, that can devastate sensitive electronics for hundreds or even thousands of square miles below.”

Even though some of North Korea’s missile tests have failed, Kosko noted that these failures signal that the country is focused on testing and learning from the failures to further refine the weaponry.

“The North Koreans also advanced this spring from using liquid-fuel to solid-fuel rockets for at least their medium-range missiles,” Kosko said.  “Solid-fuel rockets are easier to prepare for launch.  Worse, the North Koreans were able to launch them from mobile launchers that they can easily move and hide.”

The challenge ahead

The challenge facing U.S. leaders is to decide whether to continue to work on deterrence or whether it is time to disrupt North Korea’s program.

“North Korea has made impressive progress in their missile technology and likely in their nuclear technology,” Kosko said.  “As time passes, their missiles will only grow more numerous and accurate, and their nuclear payloads more powerful. We have to assume that at this rate that they will eventually acquire thermonuclear-tipped ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles], perhaps several.”

It is likely too late for a peaceful disarmament of North Korea. Dube said the alternative — forcing disarmament — would be especially devastating for South Korea. North Korea has several weapons aimed at South Korea if a military confrontation is initiated.

“If turning back the clock is the goal, then the only option right now is probably military action. The cost of using that option, though, is simply much too high,” Dube said. “If we were to make such a decision where South Koreans would bear the heaviest burden, then that is morally unacceptable. It’s one thing to say that we would sacrifice many American lives to end this threat. It’s another thing to say that we would unilaterally sacrifice countless South Korean lives to make America safer. That is no way to treat an ally that has lived with the threat from the north and been central to the American defense perimeter for more than half a century.”

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Are U.S. and North Korea in a stalemate or on the cusp of confrontation?

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