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Fire and Fury 2.0 with North Korea? Maybe Not, Analysts Say


This picture released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) shows the test launch of what state media calls a new type inter-continental ballistic missile, the Hwasongpho-17 from an undisclosed location in North Korea, March 24, 2022.

North Korea Thursday conducted its first long-range missile test in nearly five years. The North also has hinted at additional provocative steps, such as a satellite launch and a nuclear test.

The moves have raised regional tensions to levels not seen since the "fire and fury" period of 2017. This time around, though, there are several key differences that will affect how the North Korea situation unfolds:

No more Trump

After North Korea conducted two intercontinental ballistic missile tests in July 2017, then U.S. President Donald Trump threatened North Korea with "fire and fury like the world has never seen." When North Korea responded by conducting a nuclear test that September, Trump threatened to "totally destroy" the North. After North Korea conducted another ICBM test that November, Trump bragged about the size of his nuclear button, saying it was "much bigger" and "more powerful" than that of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Analysts see little chance that U.S. President Joe Biden will engage in those kinds of threats. "We know that the U.S. is not going to threaten a strike on North Korea. So in that sense that will help significantly, of course – that no one thinks that this is going to lead to war like some people thought may have happened in 2017," said Ramon Pacheco Pardo, a Korea specialist at King’s College London.

Unlike Trump, Biden will also likely not hold any tension-reducing summits with Kim until North Korea has taken at least some steps to abandon its nuclear program. Last week, a State Department spokesperson reiterated that Biden is only open to meeting Kim when "there is a serious agreement on the table."

Trump may not be gone forever, though. He has repeatedly hinted he may again run for president in 2024.

A different leader in South Korea

South Korean President Moon Jae-in took office in May 2017 – just as Kim and Trump were exchanging threats of nuclear destruction. The left-leaning Moon’s outreach to Pyongyang resulted in a Kim-Moon summit in April of that year, helping pave the way for later meetings between Kim and Trump.

However, Moon leaves office May 10. He will be replaced by conservative ex-prosecutor Yoon Suk-yeol. Yoon has said he is open to talks with North Korea but has at times also used more aggressive language – for instance, threatening to carry out a preemptive strike if North Korea appears ready to fire a nuclear-tipped missile at the South.

"That's a wild card we didn't have before," said Mason Richey, an associate professor at South Korea's Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.

"It's quite conceivable that, as president, he might play bad cop and perhaps even engage in a fierce war of words similar to that of 'fire and fury' with Kim Jong Un during one of Pyongyang's provocation cycles," said Duyeon Kim, a Seoul-based Korea specialist at the Center for a New American Security. If Yoon pushes too hard for "maximum pressure" on the North, it could create friction with the Biden administration in certain scenarios, Kim warned.

Yoon has also indicated he will support the resumption of large-scale military drills with the United States, which have been scaled back or spread out since 2018, in an effort to preserve the chances for diplomacy and because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The United States and South Korea are already ramping up displays of military power as North Korea conducts bigger tests. After North Korea’s ICBM launch Thursday, South Korea fired five of its own missiles in what it called a "demonstration of our ability and willingness to respond immediately and impose punishment."

The South Korean hardware used in that display had been "pre-selected and pre-positioned and choreographed," according to a U.S. source with knowledge of alliance plans. The source, who spoke to VOA on condition of anonymity, said future drills could include strategic bombers, fifth-generation fighter jets, and an aircraft carrier strike group in Korean waters.

Less pressure from China or Russia

During the previous round of North Korea tensions, the United States was able to work with China and Russia to apply tough sanctions on Pyongyang. That kind of cooperation looks much more difficult now, especially as U.S. ties with both countries have significantly deteriorated.

China and Russia, both veto-wielding members of the United Nations Security Council, not only oppose more sanctions against North Korea; they say current sanctions should be relaxed. Both also blame the United States for current tensions.

"And North Korea and Russia have become even closer in recent weeks with Pyongyang publicly supporting Moscow after the invasion of Ukraine. So there is no chance that we will see new U.N. sanctions on North Korea," Pardo said. "The U.S. can ramp up sanctions, and others will follow. But the North Korean economy is not going to become more isolated than it has been these past two years. And I would assume that China and Russia will provide the necessary economic and energy support."

However, a North Korean nuclear test could be a red line for China, Pardo added. China is North Korea's main economic backer, but has in the past expressed concerns about the environmental and safety impacts of North Korean nuclear tests, which take place relatively close to the China-North Korea border.

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