How Serious Are North Korea’s Threats?

Reality Check: On the brink of war, or just testing our patience?

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    NEWSLETTERS

    On the brink of war, or just testing our patience? In this Reality Check, Sam Brock looks into claims that North Korea's latest threats will lead to war.

    Brash talk and violent threats from the North Korean regime are nothing new to the international community, nor to that country’s stated enemy, the United States.

    Following North Korea’s latest nuclear test, however, and a heightened series of provocative videos, militaristic gestures and a warning from Kim Jong-un himself that his rockets are ready to “settle accounts with the U.S.,” world leaders are wondering aloud if this time a confrontation is imminent.

    China and Russia have urgently called for restraint, with Russia’s foreign minister vocalizing his fears that the situation could spiral “out of control.”

    Is a clash between western powers and the North Korean government, nuclear or otherwise, inevitable at this point, and will Mr. Kim follow through with his threats?

    “You have to look at what they do, not so much what they say,” said Dr. Gloria Duffy, a deputy assistant secretary of defense under the Clinton Administration and the president and CEO of the Commonwealth Club.

    While Duffy points out it’s hard to tell at this point if a military attack is forthcoming, the risk, in her estimation, is serious based on a number of factors.

    “If you look at the overall pattern, putting together what they’re doing in their nuclear program with the rhetoric and the threats right now, yes it’s very serious,” Duffy said, who also cited the country’s threat to launch a cyber attack.

    “Can they do cyber attacks, can they interfere with the South Korean banking system? That’s a real threat, as opposed to the rhetoric,” she said.

    Duffy and other North Korea experts estimate the country is probably two to three years away from being able to attach a nuclear warhead to a ballistic missile and put a country like the U.S. in its crosshairs.

    Nonetheless, provocations along the lines of bellicose words, threatening videos and even military action against South Korea or a U.S. base could easily serve as a catalyst for war, noted Paul Carroll, program director for the Ploughshares Fund.

    His group raises money for organizations working on nuclear security.

    Carroll recalled how North Korea torpedoed a South Korean military vessel a few years ago, and has an appetite for imprudent behavior.
     
    “Their risk-taking is really threatening, and when you do those kinds of activities, when you do those kinds of provocations, you can never be sure what the response is going to be,” Carroll said. “This is how accidental wars start. What we’re seeing in this past couple of weeks, and in the days and weeks ahead, is a really dicey situation.”

    When asked if the current escalation of tensions represents the gravest security risk yet to U.S. interests, Carroll said yes.

    “They’re playing with a fuller deck, if you will, than they’ve played with in the past,” Carroll continued, referring to the country’s improving nuclear technology.

    “At least with Iran, do we engage with them occasionally and with partners in the region,” Carroll said.

    “Our largest deficit when it comes to North Korea is our own ignorance, and what we really lack is consistent information, consistent contact with North Korea.”