HONG KONG — North Korea has said it may fire missiles into waters near Guam, an American territory in the Western Pacific, escalating the standoff with the United States over the North’s nuclear program. Here are the questions raised by the threat.
What has North Korea said it will do?
North Korea said last week that it was fine-tuning plans to launch four intermediate-range ballistic missiles into waters 30 to 40 kilometers, or 19 to 25 miles, off Guam in what it said would be an “enveloping fire.” The military said at the time that it was waiting for a final order from Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea.
On Tuesday, state news media reported that Mr. Kim said he would watch American actions “a little more” before proceeding and praised his commanders for presenting him with “a close and careful plan.”
He made the remarks after a briefing by the command of the Strategic Force of the Korean People’s Army, which is responsible for missile launches. A photograph of the meeting featured a screen showing what appeared to be a satellite view of the American Air Force base on Guam.
Does that mean North Korea has backed off?
For the moment, perhaps. North Korea has made threats in the past that it did not deliver on, and the language in Tuesday’s report gives it a way out.
“They do this all the time,” said Daniel Pinkston, a lecturer in international relations at Troy University who is based in Seoul. “They always turn it into victory and say because of these military capabilities and their forces, they can deter any attack against them.”
But Mr. Kim said that his decision would depend on what the United States did.
“In order to defuse the tensions and prevent dangerous military conflict on the Korean Peninsula, it is necessary for the U.S. to make a proper option first and show it in action,” Mr. Kim said.
Why is North Korea doing this?
North Korea may be pushing back against certain military maneuvers by the Pentagon — and signaling its willingness to exercise restraint if the United States steps back, too.
The United Nations Security Council adopted tough sanctions this month that American officials said could cut the North’s export revenue by as much as a third.
North Korea threatened last week to fire missiles at Guam after President Trump warned that the United States would unleash “fire and fury” if the isolated authoritarian state endangered it. The North then released more details of the plan and said it would teach Mr. Trump a lesson.
But its initial statement made no mention of Mr. Trump and instead noted that the United States had flown two B-1B bombers from Guam over the Korean Peninsula in late July. The Pentagon said the bombers were sent to Guam from Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota last month as part of a regular rotation.
The North also condemned the test of an unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile this month that the United States launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean about 1,500 miles east of Guam.
On Tuesday, North Korea accused the United States of deploying “huge nuclear strategic equipment around the peninsula” and warned that it should “stop at once its arrogant provocation.” But South Korea and the United States are planning to conduct biannual military exercises next week over the North’s objections.
Can the missiles accurately hit the waters off Guam?
North Korea’s ballistic missile program has shown drastic improvement in recent months. It conducted two tests in July of a new intercontinental ballistic missile, the Hwasong-14, that demonstrated a potential range of 6,500 miles, meaning it could hit the West Coast, the Rockies and much of the Midwest.
But its statements about Guam have specified that it intends to use a different missile, the Hwasong-12, which is classified as intermediate-range and is fired from mobile launchers.
The North is believed to have conducted only four test flights of the Hwasong-12. The first three tests, all in April, ended in failure, with the missiles crashing or exploding soon after launch. But the fourth test, in May, was deemed a success, soaring to an altitude of 1,312 miles before hitting targeted open water 489 miles away.
State news media said the missile was fired at a high angle so it would not fall too close to any country. If flown on a standard trajectory, analysts said, the missile would have a maximum range of about 2,800 miles, putting Guam in striking distance.
The accuracy of the missile, though, is difficult to judge given that it has been successfully tested only once.
In its statement last week, North Korea said it would send the four missiles on a 2,086-mile course that flies over Japan. That raised fears that a misfire could endanger residents there.
“Given the fact that North Korea continues to exceed expectations with the rapid acceleration of its program, to discount its abilities would be foolish, hence alarmism is a cautious approach” said Gordon Flake, a Korea specialist at the University of Western Australia.
“But whether they can hit Guam or not, I don’t think the North Koreans know that,” he added.
How would the United States respond?
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters Monday that the United States would be able to determine the destination of any missile within moments of launch and would shoot down missiles aimed at its territory. “If they fire at the United States, it could escalate into war very quickly,” he warned.
But pressed on what the United States would do if a missile hit the waters near Guam but not the island itself, Mr. Mattis replied, “Well, then it becomes an issue that we take up however the president chooses.”
“You can’t make all those kinds of decisions in advance,” he continued. “There’s a host of things going on. There’s allies that we consult with, as the president made very clear last week.”
“I need a certain amount of ambiguity on this, because I’m not going to tell them what I’m going to do in each case,” he added.
The North’s plan would have the missiles splash down outside the 13.8-mile limit of Guam’s territorial waters. Nonproliferation experts said they could think of no precedent for a nation testing its missiles in such proximity to a rival.
North Korea said its missiles would take 17 minutes and 45 seconds to reach their target, meaning Mr. Trump could be briefed while they are midflight.
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