Risk of miscalculation on Korean Peninsula could unleash fatal consequences

Key Points
  • Tensions are rising between North Korea and the U.S.
  • Satellite images show the secretive regime could be making preparations for a sixth nuclear test as soon as Saturday.
Risk of miscalculation on the Korean peninsula spirals
Risk of miscalculation on the Korean peninsula spirals

Rising tensions between Pyongyang and Washington are sounding the alarm about the dangers of mistakes or miscalculation on both sides, which could lead to military action.

The U.S. military announced on Sunday that it had dispatched a carrier strike force group led by the USS Carl Vinson to the waters off the Korean Peninsula. In response, Pyongyang vowed it was ready for war.

Tensions continued to heighten as satellite images from the U.S.-based analysis firm 38 North revealed the secretive regime led by Kim Jong Un could be making preparations for a sixth nuclear test as soon as Saturday.

And on Tuesday, President Donald Trump tweeted, "North Korea is looking for trouble. If China decides to help, that would be great. If not we will solve the problem, without them!"

"Regardless of what U.S. intentions are, there is uncertainty on the peninsula when you have three large militaries in close proximity to each other — and uncertainty can lead to miscalculation," said Bruce Klingner, former chief of the CIA's Korea branch and now senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation's Asian Studies Center.

North Korea has made progress with its ballistic missiles that can reach Japan and South Korea. Defense experts say it may not be long before Pyongyang develops a reliable intercontinental ballistic missile that can reach North America.

Its fleet of about 70 submarines is considered an additional threat since some are capable of carrying missiles with nuclear warheads. The North Koreans also have biological and chemical weapons in their arsenal.

"North Korea's military is not the most advanced in the world but if they really wanted to they could kill millions of people in a very short order," said Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, a think tank founded by former President Richard Nixon.

"We need to keep these things in mind when we get into the escalatory spirals because events could really go out of control very quickly."

North Korea could conduct its sixth nuclear test as early as Saturday
North Korea could conduct its sixth nuclear test as early as Saturday

The Trump administration is reportedly considering several options to deal with the North Korean threat if China is unsuccessful in getting Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

Among the options under study is killing the 33-year-old dictator of North Korea or sending U.S. battlefield nuclear weapons to South Korea, NBC News reported last week, citing several top-ranking intelligence and military officials.

Experts insist it would be a mistake to bring back U.S. battlefield nuclear weapons to South Korea. The battlefield nukes were removed in 1991 and reintroducing them back might generate anti-American protests. They provide no military advantage and could serve as a target location, experts say.

The U.S. could conduct large surgical strikes targeting the despotic regime's missile launch, storage facilities and mobile missile units, as well as production facilities and research facilities. There are bunker-buster missiles the U.S. developed that can penetrate a weapons bunker below nearly 300 feet of cement.

That strategy, however, could have consequences.

"The longer the bombing list the greater the likelihood of an all-out war on the peninsula," Klingner said.

Artillery pieces are seen being fired during a military drill at an unknown location, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on March 25, 2016.
KCNA | Reuters

The U.S. could do more on the sanctions front to hurt North Korea, he added. Already, Pyongyang has made it clear it would launch a pre-emptive attack if it detected signs of one by the enemy.

The hotline between Seoul and Pyongyang has periodically gone down but could serve as a quick way to reduce the danger of conflict or miscalculation on the peninsula.

Still, history has shown North Korea and its leaders don't always behave rationally. There have been incidents at sea, border violations and test missile firings seen as provocative and threatening.

Analysts suggest there are other scenarios in which an error or misunderstanding might bring about a conflict on the peninsula. For example, if the guidance system were to fail in a North Korea ballistic missile test, the weapon could fall in South Korea or Japan and cause casualties.

Missile mishaps can happen even to the best of militaries. Last June, Britain's Trident nuclear submarine suffered a missile misfire off the coast of Florida when an unarmed warhead headed to the U.S. instead of its intended target off Africa, according to reports.

"Every time North Korea sends off a missile we're going to go into panic mode," Kazianis said. "The danger in something like this is if there is some sort of miscalculation on either side."