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The end of summer is one of the most dangerous times of the year. Iraq invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990, beginning a protracted involvement of the U.S. in the Middle East. The guns of August sounded the start of World War I in 1914, triggering decades of instability in Europe. September 1, 1939, brought World War II and its Holocaust. Al-Qaida attacked the U.S. on September 11, 2001, launching the forever war against terrorism.
Now it’s August and intelligence sources report that North Korea has a miniaturized nuclear warhead that could be placed atop an intercontinental ballistic missile. President Donald Trump tells North Korea that any threat to the U.S. will be met with “fire and fury,” and North Korea responds by threatening that it is studying a plan to strike the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam with missiles that could be implemented “in a multi-current and consecutive way any moment." It's not too soon to wonder if the Hermit Kingdom is about to end our summer vacation.
North Korea has been developing its nuclear arsenal for 20 years, but it finally has achieved success under Kim Jong Un. In the past year, the country has conducted two nuclear tests and fired more than 20 missiles, compared to 16 missile launches in the entire 18 years under the rule of his father, Kim Jong Il.
The younger Kim is more determined to intimidate his neighbors than his father was, and is also a lot sassier, handing a threat right back to Donald Trump, whose authoritarian approach seems to have backfired. Although Secretary of State Rex Tillerson played the good cop, saying the U.S. was not interested in regime change and preferred diplomacy, the North Korean leader has refused to negotiate, saying he will not give up his nuclear weapons.
The question remains: Are we about to get into a war with North Korea? The U.S. has been in a pretend war for decades, holding frequent combat and navy exercises with its ally South Korea. These maneuvers antagonize North Korea and have ultimately led to the development of nuclear weapons as a deterrent. Leaders have repeatedly asked for the drills to stop. Russia and China have both urged the U.S. to halt the sea exercises. The U.S. has declined. Now China announced it would conduct several days of live fire exercises off the Korean coast, a show of force for both Pyongyang and Washington.
For a war to begin, someone must take the next step, commit an intentional act of destruction causing an overwhelming loss of life and territory. North Korea won't attack South Korea, Japan, or the U.S. right now because the consequences would be too great: The small country could be destroyed in retaliation. South Korea would not be the first actor because North Korea’s million-plus active troops could cross the border in minutes. China won't make any serious interventions because it fears the unleashing of mass chaos. Russia just wants the whole thing to quiet down. The U.S. won’t strike unless it sees evidence of North Korea about to attack.
The tough new sanctions approved by the Security Council signaled that 15 major powers have aligned against North Korea and are willing to make its economic life a lot more difficult, hoping to cut off a billion dollars of its annual export revenues in order to slow down its nuclear program. But North Korea has been under sanctions for a long time, and this new round will take months to produce results. In the meantime, prepare for more missile tests. But don’t cancel any vacation plans.