North Korea is feeling threatened, so it has threatened back.
"In the case of our super-mighty preemptive strike being launched," the isolated regime's state-run media warned Thursday, it will hit the "U.S. mainland and reduce them to ashes."
The phrasing is classic Pyongyang, the bizarre mix of childish bluster and lethal armament that throws normal foreign policy strategy out the window. This same announcement from any other nuclear power would mean the start of World War III, but from North Korea, it's mostly business as usual.
What isn't business as usual is the international response to this latest round of provocation. U.S. surveillance planes are reportedly on alert for another North Korean nuclear test, as are Chinese bombers. Vice President Pence told Pyongyang the American "sword is ready," and, after some miscommunication, Japan's Self-Defense Force began joint exercises Monday with the USS Carl Vinson in waters off the Korean peninsula.
And though defense officials have denied a recent report of imminent U.S. invasion, there's no denying the feeling that U.S.-North Korea tensions are escalating. As ever with North Korea's unique circumstances, the prudent course for the United States may be debatable, but de-escalation of those tensions is not.
An American strike on North Korea would be, in a word, disastrous. As Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Wednesday, war "would be bad for the Korean Peninsula. It would be bad for China. It would be bad for Japan, be bad for South Korea. It would be the end of North Korea."
Even in the best-case scenario—a tidy overthrow of the Kim Jong Un regime that doesn't take South Korea down with it and liberates a grateful population—the entire region would be thrown into long-term chaos. A new Korean war would easily cost America $1 trillion and produce one million casualties, Gen. Gary Luck, formerly a commander of U.S. troops in South Korea, estimated.
A best-case scenario isn't even close to probable. If the U.S. takes up the North Korean offer of war, we risk war with China and North Korean nuclear, chemical, and biological strikes on U.S. troops stationed in and civilians living in South Korea. Post-regime change and an easy acceptance of American occupation by a desperate and ruthlessly brainwashed population is highly unlikely. South Korea may not prove a willing or able partner in the nation-building efforts that would follow.
Realistic assessments of a strike on North Korea are in short supply in Washington. Graham followed his grim account with a hearty recommendation for war, recklessly advising President Trump to prepare for a preemptive invasion. That is foolish and dangerous advice, but hardly unexpected from a senator who never saw a war he didn't like.
Though tensions may be rising, no North Korean strike on the United States is imminent. North Korea is not capable of executing any attack on the American mainland, let alone instantaneously reducing our country "to ashes."
Pyongyang has yet to produce an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of carrying a nuclear warhead across the Pacific Ocean, let alone a warhead that could survive the trip. (The military parade organized to honor North Korea's founding president this month included what appeared to be ICBMs, but there is no evidence those are functional—or even real. This is, after all, a nation prone to expanding its navy via Photoshop.) The medium-range missile test shot into the Sea of Japan back in February, for example, traveled about 300 miles. To hit California, a North Korean missile would have to go more than 18 times that distance.
In addition to this technological inadequacy, the showboating that is a consistent feature of North Korean military development means a surprise strike is extremely unlikely. Pyongyang will publicly test its missiles as it makes them. As the Kim regime has said, the point of being a nuclear power is for the world to know you're a nuclear power. The United States will not be surprised by a North Korean ICBM.
That timeline gives us options. Stooping to the level of North Korean bluster about preemptive strikes and ready swords is both unnecessary and reckless. It means President Trump should tune out the bad advice of the Lindsey Graham wing of the Washington establishment. It means North Korea isn't anywhere near as "super-mighty" as it claims to be, and the United States must not let ourselves be swept into an inevitably disastrous war.