There has been a landslide in relations between the US and North Korea. As Pyongyang's military power increases, Washington may find itself cornered into accepting an ugly option in order to move forward.
After another inelegant exchange of blustery rhetoric, the world is again imagining what military conflict between the US, its allies and North Korea would look like and seasoned observers are asking if the situation has reached a new and more dangerous stage.
This latest geopolitical boiling point started off with the announcement of unprecedented UN sanctionsagainst North Korea on August 5, the result of a unanimous vote in the UN Security Council after Pyongyang tested a long-range ballistic missile on July 28.
North Korea promptly rebuked the sanctions and issued a threatening statement promising "righteous action" to make the US "pay the price." On Tuesday, US President Donald Trump uttered his now infamous statement promising North Korea "fire and fury like the world has never seen," if the regime threatened the US.
Adding fuel to Trump's fire, two separate reports from Japan and the US were released Tuesday that revealed that North Korea had developed the capability to miniaturize nuclear warheads for ICBM delivery faster than anticipated.
Pyongyang responded to Trump's tough talk directly thereafter, announcing they were examining plans to fire missiles toward the coast of the US territory of Guam. On Thursday, the North Korean military announced their plan in unusual detail. It specified a launch of four Hwasong-12 missiles, which would be aimed to fly over Japan and land in the Pacific Ocean "30-40 kilometers" off the coast of Guam.
Actions speak louder than words
Despite rhetorical escalation from the US, and threats of North Korean rockets stirring up waves in Guam, key facts on the ground have not changed.
As before, a preemptive military strike by the US on North Korea would have catastrophic consequences for South Korea and Japan. And the regime in Pyongyang is fully aware it would be destroyed in a direct confrontation with the US and its allies.
It remains true that both sides do not have the incentive to escalate. There have yet to be any orders received by US military on Guam for evasive action and there are no calls for evacuation of Seoul.
What has changed is the capacity of North Korea to directly threaten the USwith nuclear weapons and the willingness of President Trump to push Pyongyang's buttons with aggressive statements that are unusually bellicose for US diplomacy.
The Trump administration has made clear that the US will not accept a nuclear-armed North Korea with ICBM capability and Pyongyang has reiterated it will not give up any of its military capabilities.
"The bigger problem now is because the Trump administration has sent mixed messages about the possibilities for preemptive or preventive actions, North Korea's threats will echo those sentiments. The risk of miscalculation rises significantly." Jenny Town, the managing editor of 38 North, a think tank at Johns Hopkins University in Washington focusing on North Korea, told DW.
A new kind of deterrence
Rodger Baker, vice president of strategic analysis at the US geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor, told DW that the US and North Korea are now closer to conflict than they have ever been over the past three decades.
"Driving this is the pace of the North's development," he said. "They are trying to achieve a demonstrable nuclear-tipped ICBM before the US acquires the political will to intervene physically." Baker added that the US knows the window for prevention is closing and at this moment, the potential for military action is highest. "It is a case of act now or lose the option for action," he said.
The North Korean regime maintains that its nuclear arsenal is essential for its survival and their possession acts as a deterrent, as in the case of other nuclear powers.
Speaking on Monday at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Manila, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho said that North Korea was a "responsible nuclear power" with "no intention" to threaten or use nuclear weapons against "any other country but the US, unless it joins military action of the US against North Korea"
"The United States has 'accepted' that China, Russia, India and Pakistan are nuclear states," said Baker, adding that in some ways the US military already considers North Korea to be a "nuclear power."
"Militarily, the US could manage a nuclear North Korea through traditional deterrence, rather than military action," added Baker. "But from a political perspective, it is not clear whether the US will 'accept' North Korea's membership in the nuclear club."
Accepting North Korean nukes?
During the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the US maintained a policy of "containment and deterrence" to address the threat of Soviet nuclear weapons. The strategy rests on limiting the effectiveness of weapons systems and providing a major disincentive for their use, also known as "mutually assured destruction."
The current problem with developing a policy of deterrence and containment is that the US has no intention to accept North Korea as a nuclear power and there is little to no dialogue between the two sides.
"Dialogue is really the only way that is going to get us out of this escalatory cycle," said Town from 38 North. "Sanctions play their role and as North Korea demonstrates new capabilities, bolstering deterrence capabilities is necessary. But pressure and isolation alone is not going to change North Korea's belief that it needs a deterrence capability."
Up to now, the US has said that it is open to dialogue only if North Korea is willing to abandon its nuclear program, an offer North Korea rejects outright. To begin dialogue, expectations must be changed.
Town said that ideally the US would need to find a politically feasible way to enter into exploratory talks without preconditions. "Only from there will we really understand what is achievable and be able to design a way forward."
"The biggest challenge to dialogue is that the two sides currently have conditions that are not conducive to compromise. North Korea will not give up its program, the US does not want to talk except in the context of the North giving up the program, so there really isn't a space for dialogue," said Baker from Stratfor.
"If the US shifts its position from one of stopping the program to one of managing through traditional deterrence, there is plenty of space for dialogue and even cooperation. But that requires the US to accept the North as a nuclear weapons state," he added.
No room for appeasement
There are massive risks for the US in accepting the North Korean regime under Kim Jong Un as a "rational" nuclear power. But regardless of political will and the threat of missiles, the US may find itself forced into acceptance as the costs of direct intervention have become too great. Another option could be to pursue a "de-facto" policy of deterrence and containment, while officially calling for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.
"The overall strategic assessment though is that a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula is in the best interest of all parties and efforts to achieve that are still ongoing," said Town, "However, the stronger North Korea's nuclear capabilities become, the harder that vision will be to achieve."
Richard Bush, Co-Director of the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, wrote in a report released this week that the danger of accepting North Korea as a nuclear power that it could lead to a collapse of regional stability in Northeast Asia and open the door for the Kim regime to conduct smaller actions against its neighbors
"Once Pyongyang can target the continental United States, it will likely take bigger risks than it has to date. It would undertake such limited-war actions as much to achieve political gains as military ones. It would hope to test South Korean intentions and try to drive wedges within South Korean society," said Bush in the report.
But whether or not the US and its allies want to accept it, North Korea has nuclear weapons and missiles aimed at its neighbors. Talking them down from the edge of destruction will take more than fire and fury, but rather diplomacy that the world has never seen.