Many of the 163,000 residents of the tiny US territory of Guam are unnerved by North Korea’s threat to launch a mid-August attack that would create “an historic enveloping fire” around the Pacific island. Others feel protected by the presence of 7,000 US soldiers on the island’s two US military bases, Anderson Air Force base and Naval Base Guam. 

Guam is the US’s strategic Pacific centre, with an arsenal including B-2 stealth bombers and nuclear-powered submarines capable of reaching any western Pacific target within hours. They also have a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system known as Thaad, which is intended to intercept missiles.  If North Korea follows through on plans to fire four Hwasong-12 mid-range missiles into the waters 30 kilometers off the island, Japan might shoot them down before Thaad would be deployed. South Korea, which has a US supplied Thaad system, is also prepared to respond to North Korean missiles. 

“Telegraphing their punch”

The threats from North Korea aren’t unprecedented, in fact they’ve become an annual August feature, however, there are several factors suggesting this year’s tensions might lead to military action. First, North Korea’s missile launched are typically unpredictable, so supplying this degree of detail in advance is unusual. Guam’s governor termed this: “telegraphing their punch, which means they don’t want to have any misunderstandings.”  Secondly, president Trump, who can authorise using the Thaad system, might be unwilling to back down from his threats to North Korea. His rhetoric matches that of leader Kim Jong un, who might also be loath to back down. 

President Obama and, before him, president Bush used strong, diplomatic language to condemn North Korea’s nuclear programme, however, their responses were made after consulting with their Secretaries of State.  From his golf holiday in New Jersey, on Tuesday, 8 August, Trump said that any threats by North Korea would be “met with fire, fury, and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.” 

Trumps improvised comment came as a surprise to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who was stopping in Guam on his return from a meeting of world leaders in Asia. He said that North Korea’s threats were simply “louder” in response to the new UN economic sanctions passed on Saturday and heated discussions about North Korea at the ASEAN summit in Manila. Tillerson downplayed Trump’s rhetoric, saying that he was only using “language that Kim Jong Un would because he doesn’t seem to understand diplomatic language.” North Korean state media called Trump’s tweet “a load of nonsense,” saying: “Sound dialogue is not possible with such a guy bereft of reason and only absolute force can work on him.”

Routine August Sabre-Rattling

North Korea releases angry rhetorical statements almost every August, in response to the US, South Korea and several allies, including the UK, conducting their annual joint military exercises on the Korean peninsula.  Last August, North Korea’s Foreign Minister threatened that Guam, and all other US military bases in the Pacific would “face ruin in the face of an all-out and substantial attack” by North Korea. 

The 12 days of exercises, called Ulchi-Freedom Guardian, take place in August or September. They are one of the world’s largest military drills, involving 50,000 South Korean and 30,000 American troops in 2015. Initiated in 1976, they focus mainly on defending South Korea from a North Korea attack. Pyongyang argues that the drills include training to invade the North Korean capital to carry out “decapitation strikes”, in attempt to kill Korean leadership.

In the past, North Korea has said they will suspend their nuclear programme if the US and South Korea stop holding the drills. At the ASEAN conference, Secretary of State Tillerson said he was ready to speak with North Korean leaders, if they agreed to stop launching missile tests. The possibility of negotiating with North Korea, however, was dismissed by Vice President Pence who said that all options are on the table for stopping the missile testing.

China rejects responsibility

On Saturday, 5 August, China called for South Korea to dismantle their Thaad system, after imposing new sanctions in response to North Korea’s recent missile launches. China’s UN Ambassador said that deploying Thaad wouldn’t solve the issue of North Korea’s missile launches and he urged North Korea to “cease taking actions that might further escalate tensions.” 

China is angered about the presence of Thaad in South Korea because the system uses powerful radar which reaches into China. Beijing is upset by Trump’s complaints that China isn’t “solving” North Korea, which relies heavily on China for trade. In April, Trump said “If China isn’t going to solve North Korea, we will.” In late July Trump tweeted, “China could easily solve this problem!” A North Korean expert at China’s Central Party School summed up China’s frustration with being expected to control North Korea, saying: “Neither North Korea nor the United States listens to China. They’re too busy heading down the path to a military clash. There’s not much China can do.”

The madman theory

Trump has often said that he wants US foreign policy to be unpredictable, which is the same tactic that was heavily relied on by former president Richard Nixon. Nixon called it “the Madman theory” when he described how he wanted the Communist Bloc nations and North Vietnamese leaders to be afraid of provoking the US because he had succeeded in convincing them that he was volatile and irrational. Trump is either employing the same tactic intentionally or, worryingly, inadvertently.

In a phone call with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, in April, Trump sought to rally regional support against North Korea by saying: “We can’t let a madman with nuclear weapons on the loose like that. We have a lot of firepower, more than he has, times 20—but we don’t want to use it.”  

Trump’s decision to escalate threats with a leader who has already been proven to be paranoid have increased the risk that North Korea will make the first move against the US. North Korea is expected to test another missile at the weekend.  Trump’s administration clearly doesn’t have a policy in place for dealing with North Korea. Tillerson has reassured Americans that they can “sleep well at night”. Jim Mattis, the Defense Secretary, echoed Trump’s rhetoric by demanding North Korea “stand down” or risk “the end of its regime and the destruction of its people.” Is this all part of a masterful Madman theory policy plan?