North Korea’s bluff to attack Guam failed, but the threat remains

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Tensions between the United States and North Korea have receded in the last few days after an intense week that saw Pyongyang threatening a missile launch at Guam, a US territory and strategic military base in the Western Pacific.

The state-run KCNA news agency reported Aug. 8 that North Korea was “carefully examining” a strike at Guam. It further stated, “the strike plan be put into practice in a multi-current and consecutive way any moment.” These comments were not made by Kim Jong-un, giving the North Korean leader a way out.

The proposed strike would have occurred Aug. 15. But the North Korean regime stated that Kim Jong-un decided he would not strike Guam but could change his mind, “If the Yankees persist in their extremely dangerous reckless actions.”

For now, tensions between North and South Korea will “normalize” as the United States continues to exert diplomatic and economic pressure on Pyongyang. There are three reasons why North Korea’s bluff failed.

First, North Korea’s economy depends on China. Some estimates suggest that 80% of the country’s economy is tied to its neighbor. China is the only country with leverage over North Korea. and until now has remained largely on the sidelines. But China’s growing economy and international influence forced it to rein in Kim Jong-un, with Beijing supporting additional UN Security Council sanctions against North Korea. China’s support of the Security Council unanimous vote made it clear that Kim Jong-un needs to back down.

Secondly, Kim understands that firing missiles at Guam would have resulted in the loss of those missiles. The THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) installed by the US can shoot down North Korean missiles. Not only would Kim have lost prestige with his inner circle, he would have shown the world how weak his military capabilities are.  In addition, the provocative action would likely have led to retaliation by the United States.

Third, despite highly inflammatory rhetoric coming from Washington and Pyongyang, cooler heads prevailed. Kim’s first goal is self-preservation and the preservation of his regime. He knew he could not win a military campaign against the US and the international community and wisely chose to back down. He will continue restraint until, or if, he develops a working ICBM that can reach the United States. That possibility will remain if continued efforts to rein in Kim are squandered.

This past week, the world became anxious, and fears of an armed conflict on the Korean peninsula dominated the news. In the end, it was China’s influence on Kim Jong-un that made the difference. If the United States wants to achieve a denuclearized North Korean regime, it must recognize that only China can solve this issue.

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