In the escalating game of chicken between North Korea and the US, North Korea is showing no signs of flinching: Pyongyang has announced detailed new plans for firing four ballistic missiles that would fly over Japan and land between 19 and 25 miles off the shore of the US territory of Guam.
North Korea says the plan could be ready for sign-off by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un within a week. If he does decide to launch the missiles, it would raise questions of whether the US would attempt to intercept them using the THAAD missile defense system it has stationed at Guam.
If the US intercepted the missiles successfully, it would make the US look stronger, but if it failed, it would be a humiliating spectacle and a blow to the credibility of US power. So it’s not hard to see how firing missiles so close to Guam raises the stakes in the US-North Korean standoff in way the North’s previous ballistic missile tests haven’t.
Recently North Korea has avoided flying the missiles it’s testing over neighboring countries — so the fact that this one would fly over Japan is also a combative gesture. Japan and South Korea have promised a strong response if Kim fires the missiles.
North Korea’s bold announcement is a direct response to President Trump’s recent unprecedented escalation in the war of words between the two countries. On Tuesday, Trump broke with the US tradition of using a measured tone when discussing the threat posed by North Korea and instead spoke with a level of intensity that North Korea typically directs at the US.
“North Korea had best not make any threats against the United States,” Trump told reporters at his golf resort in New Jersey. “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
In the state media report announcing the new plan on Guam, North Korea attempted to call Trump’s bluff, stating that the president had “let out a load of nonsense about ‘fire and fury'” and accusing him of “failing to grasp the on-going grave situation.”
The report also said that “sound dialogue is not possible with such a guy bereft of reason and only absolute force can work on him.”
So why Guam?
North Korea has a strategic interest in threatening Guam and testing its ability to strike in the area with accuracy: The island houses 6,000 American troops and hosts bases that could be used in case of an unlikely war with North Korea.
The American military presence on Guam actually consists of two bases, Andersen Air Force Base and Naval Base Guam. Only 2,200 miles southeast of North Korea, it also houses American bombers, submarines, and other ships in the Pacific Ocean.
The B-1B bombers the US flew alongside South Korean and Japanese fighter jets after North Korea’s second intercontinental ballistic missile test on July 28 took off from Andersen.
That response shows just how useful the bases on Guam can be. It allows US troops and military equipment to be “forward deployed,” which means they are already in the region and wouldn’t need to be sent from someplace else in case of conflict.
The Guam bases also help protect the 163,000 residents of the island, whose natives are US citizens by birth.
Following North Korea’s threat, Guam’s governor, Eddie Baza Calvo, released a YouTube video designed to try to allay any concerns residents might have. “I know we woke up to media reports of North Korea’s talk of revenge on the United States,” he said. “I want to reassure the people of Guam that currently there is no threat to our island or the Marianas.”
It’s not clear if North Korea could hit Guam with nuclear missiles. Even though Pyongyang has medium-range missiles that can reach the two US bases, it may not be able to reliably place a nuclear warhead on top and have it detonate once it reaches the island. The plans that North Korea has currently proposed, however, do not involve nuclear-tipped missiles — these would only be ballistic missiles.
Even if Kim did launch missiles at Guam, the island is equipped with a THAAD missile defense system that is intended to stop a North Korean weapon before it reaches US territory. The system has successfully worked 15 out of 15 times in tests, but it has yet to be used in an actual war.