With all of this, it’s hard to know if war is actually imminent or if these are the growing pains of US President Donald Trump’s new administration figuring out how to deal with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un.
Daily reports of the fragile situation fuel worries that war is imminent. North Korea released what it claimed were photographs of its artillery drills. But, has it really reached a point of no return?
Just one spark
Analysts fear the situation is a tinderbox that could be set off by a small spark.
“The real question now is somebody going to make a stupid mistake, because some kind of minor escalation could get out of hand,” said Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation.
“It’s not so dangerous that I’m not going to go to (South) Korea in three weeks. But it is a dangerous situation that could get out of hand,” said Bennett.
However, even if a strategic miscalculation happened tomorrow, many experts believe war isn’t imminent.
If it was, the US armed forces would be placed on what is known as Defcon 2, according to Carl Schuster, a Hawaii Pacific University professor and former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center.
Schuster said such an announcement would be formal and public.
The US military would also step up training inside its borders and send a second aircraft carrier to East Asia — and carriers don’t move quickly.
Schuster added it’s also important to watch what North Korean tanks and artillery are up to.
Schuster said the North Koreans would likely move much more ammunition for a battle as opposed to a drill — and that would be visible from satellite imagery.
Complicating matters is the fact that the presidency of Donald Trump has ushered in a new era of US tough talk and brinksmanship.
Trump and key members of his Cabinet have recently upped the rhetoric, saying “the era of strategic patience is over” and “all options are on the table” when it comes to dealing with the isolated state.
While the two refrains signal a shift in policy, they are lacking on specifics.
Trump is pushing China, the rogue state’s most important ally, to apply more economic pressure on North Korea to abandon its nuclear program.
US Vice President Mike Pence said the US would try to marshal support from its allies and North Korea’s neighbors, including China, and tighten the noose around Kim.
Tong Zhao, a fellow at the Carnegie Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing, said the comment could further provoke North Korea.
“Being called weak will only encourage them to appear more strong,” he said.
The worry also is that the opaque strategy being pursued by Trump could be fueling some of the hostility from his North Korean counterpart.
“We really don’t know because we really don’t know what Trump is prepared to do,” said Bennett.