What analysts have been fearing for months: North Korea says war is just a matter of ‘when’

The United States flew a B-1B supersonic bomber over South Korea on Wednesday in part of a massive combined aerial exercise involving hundreds of warplanes, a clear warning after North Korea last week tested its biggest and most powerful missile yet. CREDIT: South Korea Defense Ministry/AP Photo.

North Korea responded to a joint U.S.-South Korea combat drill by calling it “confrontational warmongering,” Reuters reported on Thursday, bringing the world closer to what experts and analysts have been fearing for months: That a war of words will lead to actual war.

“The remaining question now is: when will the war break out?” said a North Korean foreign ministry spokesman quoted in the country’s official KCNA news agency. “We do not wish for a war but shall not hide from it,” the statement said.

North Korea fired another test missile on November 28. After the missile launch, the State Department issued a statement saying that  “Diplomatic options remain viable and open, for now,” but ended up employing B-1B heavy bombers in the massive drill on Tuesday. The United States and South Korea had initially agreed to push back the exercise to the spring in an attempt to allow tensions to ease, but ultimately reverted back to the original schedule.

How did the United States and North Korea get to this point? Where are the diplomatic channels Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said were open in September, when it looked like deescalation was an option in the ongoing tensions over Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs?

North Korea has continued along the same path it has been following for years: Insisting that it will not negotiate its way out of its weapons programs. The United States, did, however change course.

When President Donald Trump took office, he adopted a stance toward Pyongyang that went beyond sanctions (which have been violated by 49 countries): He threatened “fire and fury”, vowing on the floor of the United Nations that the United States would “totally destroy” the country of 25 million.

With no U.S. ambassador in South Korea and little diplomatic leverage, Trump also engaged in a round of name-calling never before seen in the history of U.S. foreign relations, calling North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “a sick puppy,” “short and fat” and “little rocket man.” Kim replied in kind, calling Trump a “dotard” and “an old lunatic, human reject.

Trump has also taken aim at North Korea in the United Nations, where Ambassador Nikki Haley said that Pyongyang is “begging for war.” Experts told ThinkProgress at the time that this was a mischaracterization of what North Korea was doing, saying that North Korea is pursuing “a nuclear missile capability to deter what they fear, which is U.S. aggression and the possibility of an attempt to decapitate the regime in North Korea.”

Trump also used his visit to Asia in early November as a means of highlighting and promoting weapons sales in Japan and South Korea, rather than — at least publicly — discussing giving Pyongyang any kind of diplomatic off-ramp from this crisis point.

Taekyoon Kim, Fulbright scholar at the Wilson Center told ThinkProgress that while he doubts the joint military exercise will be what prompts North Korea to escalate the situation into all-out war, that it is nonetheless “high time” for a “diplomatic solution to get out of [this] deadly impasse, rather than throttle Pyongyang with total sanctions or military drills” — measures he called “meaningless.”

Responding to questions via e-mail, Kim, who is also associate professor of International Development at the Graduate School of International Studies at Seoul National University in South Korea, said that Pyongyang will continue to develop nuclear weapons “in any circumstance until it can fully demonstrate its nuclear deterrent capabilities”, until “the U.S. will officially endorse North Korea as a nuclear power.”

This latest escalation, though, is having a seismic impact on countries close to North Korea: China has essentially warned its citizens of an imminent attack with an official newspaper advising people how to cope with a potential nuclear fallout. Communities bordering North Korea are also preparing for refugees in the event that war breaks out.

According to the Japan Times, that country too is reconsidering its security protocols out of a “sense of urgency.” And South Korea’s Korean Herald indicates that the chief concern there is still a preemptive U.S. strike against North Korea. The paper reported that, in comments made on Wednesday, President Moon Jae-in said the United States can’t take any military action on the Korean Peninsula “without Seoul’s consent.”

So where does that leave things? Is war really inevitable?

Despite U.N. Security Council condemnation of North Korea’s missile tests, the United Nations has not entirely given up. U.N. Undersecretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, an American and a former diplomat is meeting with North Korean officials right now. Details of what is being discussed will not be released until after the four-day visit is complete.