August 11, 2017

Executive Summary

North Korean media and US President Donald Trump traded rhetorical threats Aug. 8-9, with both sides warning of widespread destruction if attacked by the other. Such rhetoric has long been commonplace from the Kim regime's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA); however, uncharacteristically provocative language from the US has elevated concern that conflict is possible. The hyperbolic exchange resulted in Pyongyang stating that it was "considering" a plan to fire, by mid-August, four Hwasong-12 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that would overfly Japan and land in the western Pacific Ocean off the island of Guam, a US territory and key regional military base. However, the likelihood of military strikes by either country remains low. The threat of US action is unlikely to deter Kim Jong-un, who has placed nuclear weapons development at the center of his national strategy. North Korea's leaders are primarily concerned with regime survival and are similarly unlikely to directly attack Guam, South Korea, Japan, or other US interests in Northeast Asia due to fears of US retaliation. The security situation will remain stable in the region, but bellicose language from US and North Korean leaders has the potential to foment misunderstanding and increases the possibility of miscalculation on the Korean Peninsula in the long term.

Key Judgments

  • A period of prolonged tensions on the Korean Peninsula is likely, as North Korea will continue to pursue its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program in general, and more specifically to develop a ballistic missile capable of striking the US mainland in order to exert maximum pressure on the international community for concessions, and - if successful - to reduce the threat of pre-emptive attack by the US against a nuclear-armed Kim regime.
  • Additional North Korean provocations are likely. However, the likelihood of a North Korean attack on countries in Northeast Asia, or on US soil, will remain low.
  • Inflamed rhetoric from either the US or North Korea is unlikely to fundamentally alter the prevailing security situation on the Korean Peninsula in the near term. However, the Trump administration's attempt to match North Korea's antagonistic language - likely intended to demonstrate resolve in handling the North Korean nuclear issue - could be misinterpreted by Pyongyang, raising the possibility of miscalculation.

New Round of UN Sanctions Sparks War of Words

The latest round of heated rhetoric from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) began in response to UN Security Council sanctions, which were passed unanimously on Aug. 5. The sanctions - the eighth round against North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programs - follow North Korea's ICBM tests on July 4 and 28. Under the measures, companies are banned from investing in existing joint ventures with Pyongyang or entering into any new arrangements. The measure also prevents hiring North Korean workers abroad. Most importantly, the Council also banned North Korean exports of coal, iron, iron ore, lead, lead ore, and seafood. The sanctions, if enforced, are expected to cut nearly one-third of the DPRK's exports, a major source of revenue for the government. China, which has an uneven record of sanctions enforcement with North Korea, has said that it will enforce the latest sanctions, likely further angering Pyongyang; China also called on the DPRK to halt missile tests while pointedly insisting that the US cool its "inflammatory" rhetoric.

Pyongyang warned that the US would "pay the price" for the sanctions, prompting President Trump to reply that "North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen." North Korea responded by claiming it was "carefully examining" a plan to strike near Guam, though the statement also specifically mentioned Andersen Air Force Base on Guam as a potential target. Though the media has focused on the sequence of the rhetorical exchange, the DPRK reportedly drafted its threat against Guam prior to Trump's announcement.

The timing of Pyongyang's threat suggests that it was probably in response to the flight of B1-B bombers from Andersen Air Force Base that flew over North Korea on Aug. 7. However, North Korea elaborated on its plan Aug. 10, following global coverage of President's Trump's statement, saying that it was "seriously examining" a plan to fire four Hwasong-12 ICBMs on a flight path that would have them land in the water near Guam. The KCNA statement said the plan would be finalized in the coming days. Despite the threats, the likelihood of a military attack on US soil remains low. The US military has not raised its alert level, though this could change as a precautionary measure, if intelligence suggests additional North Korea missile tests targeting Guam or US allies are imminent. Guam hosts a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system, among other measures that the US military is confident will keep the territory safe.

Resumption of Talks Less Likely with Nuclear Deterrence in Sight

The current forceful rhetoric accompanies assessments that North Korea has made more progress than previously thought in its goal of nuclear deterrence. North Korea's ICBM launches in July were expected, but their ranges - estimated to be 6,500-10,000 km (4,000-6,200 miles) - placed the US states of Alaska and Hawaii, and the US mainland, in North Korea's sights for the first time. However, intelligence assessments vary as to whether North Korea has successfully constructed a vehicle to withstand re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere; some reports of the July 28 ICBM test claim that it may have partially disintegrated as it began its descent. Additionally, a Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) assessment cited by multiple news outlets estimates that North Korea has miniaturized a nuclear device, allowing the weapon to be mounted on an ICBM. Meanwhile, Japan's Ministry of Defense stated in its latest defense white paper that "It is conceivable that North Korea's nuclear weapons program has already considerably advanced and it is possible that North Korea has already achieved the miniaturization of nuclear weapons into warheads, and has acquired nuclear warheads." The DIA assessment also estimated that North Korea may have produced as many as 60 nuclear weapons, though most analyses indicate that the number of weapons is probably between 20 and 60. Though uncertainty remains in assessments of Pyongyang's progress, the release of the estimates has contributed to the perception that North Korea can threaten the US, which has heightened the sense of urgency amid the latest rhetorical exchange. One key indicator of the DPRK's progress would be a test of a miniaturized nuclear device preceding any declaration of a comprehensive nuclear deterrent against the US.

North Korea's ICBM tests and recent intelligence assessments indicate that Pyongyang is nearing its goal of being able to strike the US mainland with nuclear weapons. The Trump administration has designated this capability as a "red-line" with National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster saying that it is "intolerable, from the president's perspective." North Korea's success in its pursuit of a nuclear deterrent suggests that a prolonged period of tensions is likely unless dialogue resumes. The prospect of talks appears remote in the near term, though the US has lowered its threshold for talks with Pyongyang, recently stating that a resumption was possible if North Korea stopped testing weapons. The Kim regime, closing in on a long-stated national security goal, is unlikely to forego additional missile tests. North Korea has stated that it intends to be a nuclear state, and that its programs are off the negotiating table unless the US alters its perceived provocative stance against Pyongyang. Kim Jong-un could respond favorably to overtures from South Korean President Moon Jae-in as an avenue for reducing tensions, but major progress is unlikely while North Korea continues to robustly pursue nuclear deterrence.


Although tensions are extremely high, the prevailing security situation on the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia remains unchanged. Pyongyang is likely to continue developing its nuclear weapons and missile programs, occasionally taking actions that are viewed as threatening by many countries in the region. A provocation sufficient to invite attack from the US and its allies in the region is unlikely. The US government has shown signs it may alter its approach in dealing with North Korea, but its chief goal will likely remain a diplomatic solution to end North Korea's nuclear program. The threat of US military action - while on the table - remains low, as it would undoubtedly trigger retaliation against US interests in the region and against its allies South Korea and Japan. However, attempts by the Trump administration to match North Korea's aggressive statements could increase tensions further. While Trump's rhetoric is likely intended to demonstrate US resolve in handling the North Korean nuclear issue, Pyongyang could interpret his language more literally than intended. In this atmosphere, the possibility of miscalculation, as well as the potential that a minor incident could lead to a wider conflict, will remain a serious concern.

The current period of heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula is a good reminder to identify and maintain contact with employees in the region, to ensure that crisis management plans are in proper order and response drills are conducted regularly for maximum effectiveness. Those operating or traveling within the Korean Peninsula should anticipate heightened security and ongoing North Korean provocations in the near term. WorldAware will continue to monitor the situation and alert clients to any potential impact on travel, physical security, and business continuity. This Special Report is copyrighted material of WorldAware, Inc. and shall not be reproduced or redistributed in any form without express written consent of WorldAware. WorldAware, Travel Intelligence and Worldcue are registered trademarks of WorldAware. All rights reserved. © 2017 WorldAware, Inc. The information in this document is provided by WorldAware, Inc. for your information only. While WorldAware constantly monitors the changing world situation and strives for accuracy and timeliness, this information is provided to you on an "as is" basis, and your use of this information is solely at your own risk.