North Korea’s abrupt walk back from its plan to bracket Guam with ballistic missile is being viewed by some foreign policy analysts and diplomats as a positive step in the continuing US-North Korea standoff. Respectively, the collective hope is that Kim Jong Un’s move will present an opportunity for the US, Japan, and South Korea to explore a diplomatic avenue and lower the temperature on what is still a volatile situation. In an outward sense, the pause is a constructive step as it offers a cooling period for Washington and Pyongyang following last week’s exchange of heated rhetoric. What becomes of it remains to be seen, though it is not reasonable to assume North Korea will use the opportunity to defuse the situation.
There is concern that Kim’s about face could be a calculated move to lower the scrutiny and pressure his regime is contending with. Every tool that he used on the Obama administration with considerable success has failed to budge the Trump administration from its position. Threats of launching a missile strike directly on the United States never provoked anything more than a bomber flyover, and a call for strategic patience during the later years of Obama’s presidency. From the time Kim Jong Un took power until Barack Obama left the White House the United States did not take any decisive action against North Korea either diplomatically, militarily, or on the sanctions front. Things have been different with President Trump, to say the least.
Perhaps Kim needs time to conjure up a new strategy that will put North Korea back in a position of strength. Or, more ominously, maybe he is deliberately lowering tensions as he prepares to lash out at the United States in another form. There is growing speculation in US military and intelligence circles that the North could choose to launch a cyberattack rather than a volley of ballistic missiles. North Korea is one of the most notorious cyber villains in the world and has been behind cyberattacks on US companies before. It could use a cyberattack to harm not only individual US companies or government agencies, but the US economy as a whole.
At any rate, North Korea’s announcement today changes little for the moment. Pyongyang’s intentions with regards to Guam have been altered, but it still possesses nuclear weapons, and long range ballistic missiles able to reach US territory. That is the core of the standoff with the United States. Threats to launch missiles in the vicinity of Guam, and sardonic rhetoric are nothing more than window dressing for the moment.