Is Nuclear War Next?

As the U.S. and North Korea trade fighting words, Fletcher’s Sung-Yoon Lee examines the risks behind the rhetoric
August 16, 2017


North Korea appears to be pulling back from its plan to strike areas around the U.S. territory of Guam. But tensions remain high between the rogue communist nation and the United States.

A war of words erupted last week after reports emerged that North Korea has developed the ability to make a nuclear warhead small enough to fit inside an intercontinental ballistic missile. U.S. President Donald Trump responded by saying further threats from North Korea would be “met with fire, fury and frankly power the likes of which the world has never seen before.” Soon after, North Korea threatened to send four missiles into the waters around the Pacific island of Guam, and Trump responded that U.S. military solutions were “locked and loaded.”

As the conflict simmered, we spoke with Sung-Yoon Lee, F94, F98, the Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor in Korean Studies and assistant professor at the Fletcher School, to learn about the real threats behind the belligerent statements.

Tufts Now: Amid these rising tensions, how nervous should we be about an outbreak of nuclear war?

Sung-Yoon Lee: There’s always the chance of miscalculation, so we shouldn’t let our guards completely down. But I am certain the U.S. is not excited to strike first, for fear of escalation, for fear of retaliation. In the grand scheme of things, the bluster coming out of North Korea in the past few weeks does not warrant a military response. I would think that’s the view in the White House today.

Does Trump’s bellicose rhetoric help the U.S. position by showing determination, or does it undermine efforts at diplomacy?

When Trump says these things, it makes people nervous. But I think he’s uttering these words without really having a strategy in mind. That kind of bluster is rare for a U.S. president, but it’s not unprecedented. One could put a positive spin on it and say these strong words reflect the determination on the part of the president and the administration to take the growing North Korea threat seriously. There’s truth to that.

“If North Korea doesn’t do anything over the next few weeks, then there will be a sigh of relief and even a fatuous self-congratulatory view that we’ve done a good job. But the problem will not go away; it will only grow bigger,” said Sung-Yoon Lee. Photo: Alonso NicholsDoes that translate into a greater willingness to use force, to strike first? I don’t think so. North Korea would hit back, and that would lead to disastrous casualties, for South Koreans and Americans and possibly Japanese. No one wants to go there.

Earlier this week, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un reportedly reviewed plans to test-fire missiles in a “ring of fire” around Guam, as he had previously threatened to do, but then said he would “watch a little more the foolish and stupid conduct of the Yankees.” Many commentators saw that as a step back from his earlier threats. How do you interpret his latest statement?

I think it’s more of a smoke screen, presenting an olive branch, if you will, right before an attack or a major provocation like an ICBM test or even a nuclear test, an attack along the DMZ or the maritime border, or even carrying out that threat to send missiles to the waters around Guam.

Would that lead to military response from the U.S.? I’m almost certain it wouldn’t, because what Kim Jong-Un has threatened is not to kill residents on Guam, but to make a point that they can when they want to.

De-escalation—getting North Korea to take a step back—has been the standard by which both the U.S. and South Korea have measured success in their relations with North Korea. The bar has been set low. If North Korea doesn’t do anything over the next few weeks, then there will be a sigh of relief and even a fatuous self-congratulatory view that we’ve done a good job. But the problem will not go away; it will only grow bigger.

The U.N. has imposed yet another round of sanctions on North Korea, and China moved earlier this week to implement a ban on imports of coal, iron, lead and seafood from its communist neighbor. Do you think China will follow through?

I’m convinced China will increase aid to North Korea behind the scenes. China said in February that it would stop importing coal from North Korea. However, thanks to Google Earth, we see North Korean ships undocking coal in Chinese ports. North Korea-China trade figures go up with each U.N. Security Council resolution condemning North Korea’s nuclear tests. Dozens of Chinese shell companies are laundering money for North Korea, helping North Korea proliferate weapons and smuggle banned substances, including arms and counterfeit U.S. $100 bills.

What’s needed to make China feel the pinch and fully enforce the sanctions on North Korea?

Unless the Trump administration is able to enforce sanctions against Chinese companies, banks and individuals, thereby raising the cost for China of continuing to support North Korea, I don’t think China will budge.

No U.S. president since the end of the Korean War has shown the resolve to put maximum non-lethal pressure on North Korea, because North Korea has a way of causing headaches and there’s the political temptation to get North Korea out of the headlines by making some kind of deal that will temper North Korea’s behavior for a few months or perhaps a few years.

After North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006, George W. Bush made all kinds of concessions and the U.S. got less than nothing in return. The North Korea threat cannot be resolved with U.S. military might alone, so the temptation for Trump to settle for an expedient deal will be very strong in the years to come.

Heather Stephenson can be reached at

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