North Korea's missile threat to Guam crafted for 'maximum drama,' says former CIA analyst

Key Points
  • North Korea's specific threat issued this week of test-firing Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missiles into waters off Guam is perhaps more theater and mischief than anything else, according to experts.
  • "By constructing this whole scenario in the way they have, they've opted to go for maximum drama," former CIA analyst Robert Carlin said.
  • Also, based on satellite images and other known information there are no signs of preparations within North Korea for a war mobilization effort.
  • If one were to occur, it could prove to be devastating to the country's food supply since soldiers help in the food harvest.
People watch news report showing North Korea's Hwasong-14 missile launch on electronic screen at Pyongyang station, North Korea in this photo taken by Kyodo on July 29, 2017.
Kyodo via REUTERS

North Korea's specific threat issued this week of test-firing ballistic missiles into waters off the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam — and flying over Japan — is perhaps more theater and mischief than anything else, a former CIA analyst said Thursday.

"By constructing this whole scenario in the way they have, they've opted to go for maximum drama," said former Central Intelligence Agency analyst Robert Carlin, now a visiting scholar at Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation. He spoke on a press conference call arranged by 38 North, a think tank specializing in North Korea at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Added Carlin, "In other words, as this drags out day by day, there will be more dramatic developments and statements and events, and I think that probably suits them (the North Korean regime) fine. They'd like as much drama surrounding this as they can."

At the same time, there doesn't appear to be any military mobilization underway in North Korea that might indicate widespread preparations for war, experts said.

Carlin, who also served as chief of the Northeast Asia division at the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, said the population in North Korea does not appear to be seriously mobilized about the threat and potential repercussions.

"Almost surprising, if you look at the radio and television [and] daily news, it's pretty normal," he said. "And they are still mostly concentrating on economic themes — not much in terms of mobilizing themselves in preparation for a crisis with the Americans."

Joseph Bermudez, a 38 North analyst and founder of KPA Associates, agreed that based on what's known today there are no signs of preparations within North Korea for a war mobilization effort.

"I don't see any significant signs of mobilization of the populace in North Korea," said Bermudez. He said the assessment was based in part on satellite imagery.

Even so, Carlin said North Korea has at times in its history used something termed a "state of semi-war" that puts the regime's army on alert. He said that type of event hasn't happened in some time and would also mean the population is put on alert and people get pulled out of factories too.

That said, Carlin doesn't believe North Korean leader Kim Jong Un wants to interrupt economic activities in the country by mobilizing the population fully. If the regime did do that, though, he said it would be seen as "a pretty serious sign that they're very concerned that something is about to happen."

Experts said North Korea also is about to enter the harvest season so a war-like mobilization of the population could have negative implications on the country's already low food supplies.

North Korea's food problems have taken a toll on the population, which suffers from a poor diet and sometimes starvation. In contrast, the regime's leadership and top officers get to the front of the line when it comes to food supplies.

"If they were to mobilize at this point in time, it would have a serious impact upon food collection, harvesting and then subsequently food distribution," said Bermudez. "And then after that, food availability during the upcoming winter."

To be clear, Carlin said a full mobilization of its population also might not mean that the regime plans to strike first but that they may be worried about being a target.

Carlin also said it was unusual that North Korea issued a specific target threat for a test but he added that it's also not unprecedented. He pointed out that the North had talked about "aiming fire in the past at South Korean targets," including things as small as propaganda loudspeakers.

However, Carlin said what's perhaps different this time is the North's threat was aimed at "something as sensitive, let's say, as an American military base." Guam has U.S. military bases with an estimated 6,000 troops, and it hosts the Air Force's B-1B strategic bombers, a Navy submarine base and the THAAD missile interceptors.

According to Carlin, the new threat from North Korea doesn't appear to be a sign they are planning to use a nuclear weapon on Guam or the United States but rather making a demonstration.

"At some point, they're going to say, 'Look, this isn't anything different from your flying B-1 bombers over Korea,'" he said. "So this isn't the point at which they are going to do anything, and I don't think they really are … unless they are put into a corner."

Finally, the Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile that the North threatened to launch toward Guam still has serious reliability issues.

Based on what's known, Bermudez said the Hwasong-12 missile was tested four times by the regime — and only once was successful.

"This is not a good ratio or percentage of success to base a significant military operation upon," he said. "We have to view this statement (about Guam) in the context of the political situation."

Meantime, the missiles the North said it might fire toward Guam would fly over populated areas of Japan.

Japan's public broader, NHK, reported Friday the country's Defense Ministry plans to step up "its vigilance and surveillance to prepare possible contingencies that may arise from North Korea's threatened launch of ballistic missiles.