Increasing 'danger of miscalculation' on the Korean Peninsula, former CIA official says

Key Points
  • President Donald Trump's "fire and fury" comment Tuesday and mixed messages from the administration on North Korea are making U.S. Asian allies uneasy, and they're growing the risk on the Korean Peninsula
  • "You have a danger of miscalculation and a danger of escalation," said Bruce Klingner, the Central Intelligence Agency's former deputy division chief for Korea
  • Ex-U.S. diplomat Joseph DeThomas said what's needed by the Trump administration is a "very clear deterrence policy — not this kind of fly-off-the-handle and say something one day, and then say something the opposite the other day"
North Korea still has several steps before getting a long-range nuclear missile: Expert

President Donald Trump's "fire and fury" warning on Tuesday may contribute to mixed messages to North Korea and U.S. allies in Asia — increasing the risk of miscalculation on the Korean Peninsula, according to U.S. experts.

National security and foreign policy experts say it is critical for the administration to maintain a consistent message on North Korea since wavering on different viewpoints risks alienating key allies South Korea and Japan.

"You have a danger of miscalculation and a danger of escalation," said Bruce Klingner, former deputy division chief for Korea at the Central Intelligence Agency and current senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation's Asian Studies Center.

On Tuesday, North Korea said it would "ruthlessly take strategic measures involving physical actions," according to an official quoted by Pyongyang's state-run Korean Central News Agency. The threat followed the United Nations Security Council's new international sanctions passed unanimously on Saturday, which some suggest could reduce the North's exports revenue by as much as one third.

At the same time, Trump weighed in with his own response Tuesday: "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."

Nuclear-armed North Korea has test-fired at least a dozen ballistic missiles this year, including two Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missiles last month that experts say have a range to reach at least half of the continental United States.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reacts with scientists and technicians of the DPRK Academy of Defence Science after the test-launch of the intercontinental ballistic missile Hwasong-14 in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang July, 5, 2017.
KCNA | Reuters

"There are no easy answers here," said former U.S. diplomat Joseph DeThomas, now professor of practice at Pennsylvania State University's School of International Affairs. "There isn't an option that just magically fixes this anymore."

The dynastic regime's 33-year-old leader, Kim Jong Un, has been in charge since 2011 and conducted more ballistic missile tests and twice as many nuclear weapon tests as his father and grandfather did during their rule.

"This regime, at the end of the day, values one thing — and that's its own power and survival," said DeThomas. "At some point, it made the conclusion that the only way its power and survival would be guaranteed is if it had nuclear weapons with which it could hit American targets."

Experts also believe the latest international sanctions on their own probably won't change the minds of the North Korean leader.

"I wouldn't be putting my hopes that any kind of sanctions that we can put on them are going to change things," DeThomas. He also said in a recent blog post that there are ways for North Korea to evade some of the sanctions.

"I don't think sanctions at this point are a tool that can achieve that for you alone," DeThomas said in an interview. "They take too long to work — and the price you have to inflict on North Korea that thinks its survival is at stake would be huge."

DeThomas, who served abroad in U.S. foreign service posts during a three decade career in government and is a former U.S. ambassador to Estonia, said what's needed is for the Trump administration to have a "very clear deterrence policy — not this kind of fly-off-the-handle and say something one day, and then say something the opposite the other day."

Indeed, experts cited mixed messages just in the last week from the administration and other instances too.

Over the weekend, Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said the Trump administration won't talk to North Korea and then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Monday the U.S. could hold a dialogue to North Korea. Also, experts say there have been conflicting statements by Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo and Tillerson about regime change in North Korea.

"There's been a series of statements that contradict each other," said Klingner, adding that his conversations with Japanese and South Korean officials indicate the U.S. Asian allies are now "very confused and concerned."

That said, Klingner said he believes there's plenty of blame to go around since South Korea has also at times contributed to tensions rising on the peninsula. For example, he said, at one point the Seoul government had warned about preemption if it detected an attack from the North was imminent. In turn, North Korea warned back.

"You have three large militaries in close proximity to each other, each talking about kind of a hair trigger response or even preemptive or even preventative attacks," said Klingner.