It’s been an action-packed 24 hours in U.S.-Korea relations.
After learning of North Korea’s increased nuclear potential on Tuesday, President Trump threatened the isolated nation with “fire and fury”—a hint at nuclear war. North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un promptly proceeded to threaten Guam, a U.S. territory, with an offensive attack. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson later attempted to temper Trump’s comments and downplay the risk to Guam, saying that no “imminent threat” currently exists and that the world can rest easy for now.
Then, on Wednesday, Trump doubled down on his aggressive stance in a series of inaccurate tweets about the U.S. arsenal. At the same time, Defense Secretary James Mattis appeared to threaten North Korea with annihilation, should the country’s nuclear ambitions continue.
With the situation still unfolding and new off-the-cuff statements hitting headlines seemingly on the hour, things can get a bit confusing. Here’s what you need to know to sort through all the chaos.
How we got here
North Korea’s nuclear program has been the subject of international tension and debate for years, dating back to the regime of Kim Il-sung. A former anti-Japanese guerilla fighter, Kim Il-sung came to power after World War II ended and the Korean peninsula was temporarily divided into two halves.
That division soon became permanent, with a U.S.-backed dictatorship forming in South Korea and a Soviet-backed communist regime forming in North Korea under Kim Il-sung. Despite numerous requests from the North Korean leader, both the Soviet Union and long-time ally China refused to share nuclear weapons technology (the former did eventually assist in building a nuclear power plant in the 1980s—Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, which remains the country’s major nuclear facility).
The collapse of the Soviet Union (and the end of its funding) ushered in a period of economic crisis for North Korea, as well as the leadership of Kim Jong-il, who came to power officially in 1997. As South Korea democratized, Kim Jong-il sought to increase military might, something that alarmed Western nations.
During Bill Clinton’s presidency, the Agreed Framework—a pact between the United States and Russia—was finalized: the United States would provide resources and help North Korea build two light-water nuclear reactors, while the latter agreed to inspections from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and a halt to its previous nuclear ambitions. But the framework fell apart under President George W. Bush, as administration hardliners pushed for a crackdown. In January 2003, the country withdrew from the International Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and Kim Jong-il continued his efforts with renewed fervor.
When Kim Jong-un came to power in 2011, the situation escalated. Between 2006 and 2016, North Korea conducted five successful nuclear tests—three of which occurred under Kim Jong-un. And after Trump took office in January 2017, North Korean missile tests became an ongoing reality, one perhaps worsened by Trump’s ongoing back-and-forth with Kim Jong-un. Trump has repeatedly lashed out at North Korea’s nuclear efforts, while arguing that neighboring China should be working to mediate the issue.
North Korea’s nuclear program
How far along North Korea is in its quest to develop nuclear missiles remains unclear. Experts say the country likely has eight to 10 nuclear weapons. That’s a terrifying reality for South Korea, which lies just across the Korean Peninsula, but is less pressing for many U.S. residents. Still, U.S. intelligence experts have long been concerned that North Korea might develop an ICBM capable of reaching the United States.
If recent reports are accurate, that may have already occurred. On July 4, the regime successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) which experts say was capable of hitting the United States. That test was followed by another successful launch last Friday: a missile that could fly as far as Chicago. An annual threat assessment issued by the Japanese government on Tuesday also noted that it was “possible that North Korea has already achieved the miniaturization of nuclear weapons and has acquired nuclear warheads.”
Still, that doesn’t mean North Korea can actually hit a target in the United States. An ICBM would have to survive re-entry from the atmosphere to make contact with land after flying a lengthy distance—something North Korea does not yet seem to have mastered.
Guam, a U.S. territory rarely mentioned in the news, was singled out by North Korea on Tuesday. The location actually makes sense: originally colonized by the Spanish, Guam has been under U.S. control since the conclusion of the Spanish-American war in 1898. Under U.S. rule, Guam is considered American soil, though the island does not enjoy full voting rights. Used predominately as a U.S. military hub, the tiny area acts as both a strategic naval station and airfield.
That distinction puts Guam and its approximately 162,742 residents at risk. Guam would be directly in the line of fire, should North Korea decide to test an ICBM, an option Pyongyang has acknowledged is on the table.
Still, Eddie Baza Calvo, Guam’s governor, argued on Wednesday that the island is not concerned.
“I know we woke up to media reports of North Korea’s talk of revenge on the United States and this so-called newfound technology that allows them to target Guam,” Calvo said in a video statement. “I’m working with Homeland Security, the rear admiral and United States to ensure our safety, and I want to reassure the people of Guam that currently there is no threat to our island or the Marianas.”
He added that “Guam is American soil” and that “an attack or threat on Guam is an attack or threat on the United States.”
What nuclear war would actually look like
In all of history, only two nuclear bombs have ever been detonated during wartime: once in the Japanese city of Hiroshima and again in the Japanese city of Nagasaki. Both were dropped by the United States during World War II, effectively bringing the war in the Pacific to a close.
The results were devastating. More than 200,000 people are believed to have died, while radiation poisoning and related illnesses continued to plague survivors for decades afterward. Enduring international trauma arguably persists to this day.
With North Korea, the situation could be even worse. All residents on the Korean Peninsula, its neighboring countries, and the United States would be in harm’s way, and the lives of millions would be at stake.
That’s something many members of the Trump administration are looking to avoid, despite the president’s tough talk. In June, Mattis doubled down on that stance.
“It will be a war more serious in terms of human suffering than anything we’ve seen since 1953,” Mattis said of any potential clash with North Korea. “It will involve the massive shelling of an ally’s capital, which is one of the most densely packed cities on Earth. It would be a war that fundamentally we don’t want…we would win at great cost.”