The continuing escalation of verbal threats by North Korea and harsh warnings from American officials has sparked questions about whether military conflict between the U.S. and Pyongyang is possible, and if so, what it could look like.
Two foreign policy experts stressed in interviews with ABC News both that because North Korean leader Kim Jong Un‘s main priority will always be to ensure continuation of his family’s regime he will likely hesitate to take any steps that could threaten their control.
“The whole goal is regime survival,” said ABC News aviation consultant Steve Ganyard, a retired Marine Corps colonel.
Scott Snyder, a senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, told ABC News that Kim probably knows he can’t use nuclear weapons for offensive purposes if he wants to survive and “what we know of Kim Jong Un is that he wants to survive.”
Aside from Kim’s interest in self-preservation, it remains unclear whether North Korea has all of the necessary technology to make an offensive strike possible.
Ganyard said North Korea would have to have four essentials in place before making nuclear strike: a nuclear weapon, missiles, technology that allows a missile to re-enter the earth’s atmosphere without igniting, and the capability to target missiles.
Kim “showed us that the rocket has the range” necessary to strike parts of the U.S. through recent missile tests, Ganyard said. And, a U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency report cited the broader U.S. intelligence community’s analysis that North Korea has a miniaturized nuclear weapon that could fit on a rocket. Separately, Japan’s defense ministry came to a similar conclusion.
But it remains unknown if the North Koreans have the re-entry or target technology necessary for such an attack.
“At this stage, even with the [Defense Intelligence Agency] report out there, I would still say that they have an unproven capability to deliver because there has not been a judgment yet about their ability to master re-entry to the earth’s atmosphere, so that applies for now to the continental United States,” Snyder said.
“But that may not apply in months,” he added.
Despite the reasons why North Korea may be unlikely to mount a nuclear strike, the country’s threatening rhetoric has not died down.
Several U.S. cities or territories are within a range which experts believe North Korea’s missiles could potentially reach.