North Korean state media said on Thursday that tensions between Washington and Pyongyang had increased so much that war had now become inevitable and that the only question was when.
The US and South Korean militaries are currently participating in an air-power exercise on the Korean Peninsula involving a record number of stealth jets and an increased pace of simulated bomb runs.
But amid North Korea’s and the US’s escalating rhetoric and military pressure, one option has emerged that’s only slightly less desirable than all-out combat: perpetual brinkmanship.
North Korea last month tested what it said was a nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile — but one successful test is hardly a strong track record, and it will most likely have to continue testing, according to Yun Sun, an expert on North Korea and China at the Stimson Center.
And though the US has its top-of-the-line jets in South Korea for the exercise, it could still ratchet up pressure more — for example, Sun said, by engaging in covert, unattributable military actions against North Korea’s nuclear infrastructure or stepping up cyberattacks.
Both sides are scared to shoot first
“Deterrence is the main issue here,” Sun told Business Insider.
And now more than ever, both sides are deterred from conflict.
With a credible ICBM, North Korea can more comfortably keep the US from striking, as it could retaliate with nuclear power. And as the world unites against a rogue, nuclear-capable Pyongyang, Washington’s mandate to protect US citizens and crush any aggression from North Korea against US allies has also crested.
Essentially, despite the deep differences bitter tensions, the US and North Korea have deterred each other from attacking — much like the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Over decades, the US and the Soviet Union butted heads continually over national security and foreign policy, but because of nuclear deterrence, war never broke out.
Today, the US is entering a similar relationship with North Korea, but it may be less dangerous — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s influence is mainly limited to his small, impoverished country, whereas the Kremlin during the Cold War proved adept at bolstering enemies of the US wherever they were.
No end in sight to the North Korean crisis
The US and North Korea have fundamentally different views of what a peace process would entail, and war would mean Pyongyang’s absolute destruction.
“This cycle of tensions is going to continue for a while,” Sun said.
The US, meanwhile, has pursued a diplomatic strategy of “maximum pressure” on North Korea, which has struggled amid sanctions designed to wither its economy and, ultimately, halt its nuclear program.