brinkmanship
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The nuclear brinkmanship on the Korean Peninsula lessened somewhat on Wednesday with reports coming out that the fiery leader of DPRK, Kim Jong Un held back his plans to attack the US territory of Guam. The statement attributed to Kim has put the burden of escalation on President Trump. Kim reportedly said:” I will watch a little more the foolish and stupid conduct of the Yankees.”

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Jim Mattis and Rex Tillerson said that they have supplanted strategic patience with strategic accountability

President Trump took his favorite conduit, Twitter once again but this time it was not about fire and fury but one of appreciation. Trump tweeted:”Kim Jong Un of North Korea made a very wise and well-reasoned decision. The alternative would have been both catastrophic and unacceptable!”

Last week saw both countries in a verbal nuclear war of sorts. The dangerous diatribes started when Trump, in his cavalier off the cuff remark warned North Korea of a response with ‘Fire and fury’. The statement was deemed as spontaneous, surprising, and incendiary. North Korea responded by a direct and dire threat. Its military announced a detailed plan to fire four Hwasong-12 missiles over Japan and into waters around the tiny US territory of Guam, home to two US bases and 160,000 people.

Read more: A ‘new normal’ in South China Sea

Regardless of the force disequilibrium, a first-strike by either of the two countries would be tantamount to foolishness

Despite it being a rhetoric at best, Trump responded aggressively. He cajoled North Korea to get their act together or face a deadly response. ”Maybe that statement wasn’t tough enough,” he said.If this was not enough he said that military solutions are firmly on the table and that it is hoped that Korea would take a different course. He Tweeted: ”Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely. Hopefully, Kim Jong Un will find another path!”.

Thus far the bellicosity in statements is not matched by mobilization on the battlefield. Both militaries are not seen preparing for war, deriding the credibility of threats.

A temporary lull

The fire and fury seemed to be tapering off. The restraint shown by Kim can be attributed to two factors. Firstly, the remarks of Defense Chief, Jim Mattis are stern enough to act as a temporary deterrent. He said Monday that if North Korea follows through on its threats to fire a missile at the United States, “it’s game on.”

He said that the US. would take out any missile headed towards the US territory including Guam. “it could escalate into a war very quickly… yes, that’s called war, if they shoot at us.” he said adding that the shooter must be mindful of the consequences.

Read more: Korean Peninsula: Nuclear flash point

Though the threat is not credible as of now, it imposes caution on North Korea. In a way, Mattis’s words have proven to be a better deterrent than Trump’s tweets.

Tweets aside, the US is not likely to go first hence the idea of a preemptive attack by DPRK is not feasible

China asserted that it would not come to Pyongyang’s rescue if it launches a preemptive strike on US territory which invokes a response. However, China would intervene in the case of US initiation. China has repeatedly warned both Washington and Pyongyang not to do anything that raises tensions or causes instability on the Korean Peninsula, and it strongly reiterated that message last  Friday.

North Korea has reasons in not taking these threats lying down. For North Korea, it becomes difficult to ascertain if the threat is credible or just a mere bluster. Last month, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said the second flight test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) demonstrated that his country can hit the US mainland.

The CIA has assessed that North Korea’s ICBM reentry vehicles would likely perform adequately if flown on a normal trajectory to continental U.S. targets.

Read more: India-China stand-off: Is war imminent?

This ability of the delivery system gives Pyongyang the confidence to launch preemptive strikes. Given that deterrence relies on effective second-strike capabilities, North Korea may find itself better off going first. Pyongyang will also be mindful of the US’ counterforce doctrine which runs the risk of the annihilation of Korean military facilities with a nuclear strike.

Trump has to tweet with caution because often times deterrence or lack of it is linked with the psyche

MAD is not tenable in the US-Korea equation which gives Kim a good enough reason to press the button. In order to stop this catastrophic eventuality, Trump has to tweet with caution because often times deterrence or lack of it is linked with the psyche. The more Trump tries to portray a US attack imminent, the more North Korea will inch closer to a strike.

However, regardless of the force disequilibrium, a first-strike by either of the two countries would be tantamount to foolishness. Tweets aside, the US is not likely to go first hence the idea of a preemptive attack by DPRK is not feasible. Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Jim Mattis and Rex Tillerson said that they have supplanted strategic patience with strategic accountability.

If anything, both top officials have given the right signals to DPRK but the likely compellant and deterrent effect may not last for long; words have to be wisely selected from both sides. As a relatively weaker nuclear force, DPRK may be tempted to go first in spite of grave risks associated.

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