It’s been a scary few days on the Korean Peninsula. In just the past two days, North Korea’s reclusive government has held a massive military parade, flubbed a missile test, and threatened nuclear war with the US.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration, which recently ordered the US Navy to deploy an aircraft carrier strike group to the waters off North Korea, sent Vice President Mike Pence to the North Korean border to warn that Washington’s era of “strategic patience” toward the North had ended — a comment many interpreted as a veiled military threat to Pyongyang.
Hanging over it all were unconfirmed reports in the US media that the White House was considering a preemptive strike on North Korea.
Bellicose rhetoric is pretty standard fare when it comes to North Korea, and doesn’t necessarily mean that armed conflict — let alone nuclear war — is anywhere close to breaking out. What’s new here is that the Trump administration is openly threatening the country in a way that neither the Bush nor Obama administration was willing to do, openly saying that it is prepared to use military force to rein in North Korea’s nuclear program.
Pyongyang has responded in kind, promising to raze US military bases in South Korea, calling them “the strongholds of evil.”
And the fact that all of these events have happened since Wednesday is a stark reminder that it’s North Korea, and not Russia or ISIS, that might actually pose the gravest and most immediate threat to American national security.
Here’s a quick guide to what happened and what it all means.
Rumors of a North Korean nuclear test and a possible US preemptive military strike
On Wednesday evening, reports began circulating that North Korea (formally known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK for short) was poised to carry out an underground nuclear weapon test.
Around the same time, reporters on the ground in North Korea — who had been invited by the government to cover an upcoming military parade — started tweeting that they were being rounded up and put on buses to be taken to an undisclosed location.
They had previously been told by the regime to expect a “big and important event” to take place that day, and many speculated they were being taken to a nearby nuclear testing site to witness what would be the country’s sixth nuclear test.
Turns out they were being taken to witness the opening of a new street that was completed last month. That’s it. A street. (To be fair, it is a pretty nice street.)
Yet rumors of an impending nuclear test persisted. Then on Thursday, NBC News came out with an anonymously sourced but profoundly unsettling story:
The report, which cited unnamed intelligence officials, said the US was “prepared to launch a preemptive strike with conventional weapons against North Korea should officials become convinced that North Korea is about to follow through with a nuclear weapons test.”
This, of course, was a terrifying development: A US military strike against North Korea could prompt that country’s volatile leader, Kim Jong Un, to launch a devastating military strike against South Korea, a staunch US ally defended by American troops stationed there. In other words, this could potentially launch an all-out war with North Korea.
Luckily, it seems the NBC News report was wrong. Multiple other news outlets were unable to confirm that initial report, and defense and intelligence officials aggressively downplayed the possibility of a preemptive strike, calling the report “wildly wrong,” “crazy,” and “extremely dangerous,” according to Fox News’s Jennifer Griffin.
NBC may have gotten the story wrong, but the very fact that the substance of the article seemed plausible was a vivid illustration of how quickly the standoff with North Korea has intensified. The Trump administration’s aggressive rhetoric toward North Korea made a story about what would be an American act of war against the world’s most dangerous and least predictable regime sound like a viable possibility.
And that alone is disturbing.