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What the hell is going on with North Korea, explained

It’s been a scary few days on the Korean Peninsula. Here’s what’s happening.

A submarine missile is paraded across Kim Il Sung Square during a military parade in Pyongyang, North Korea, on April 15, 2017.
AP Photo/Wong Maye-E, File

It’s been a scary few days on the Korean Peninsula. In just the past two days, North Korea’s reclusive government has held a massive military parade, flubbed a missile test, and threatened nuclear war with the US.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration, which recently ordered the US Navy to deploy an aircraft carrier strike group to the waters off North Korea, sent Vice President Mike Pence to the North Korean border to warn that Washington’s era of “strategic patience” toward the North had ended — a comment many interpreted as a veiled military threat to Pyongyang.

Hanging over it all were unconfirmed reports in the US media that the White House was considering a preemptive strike on North Korea.

Bellicose rhetoric is pretty standard fare when it comes to North Korea, and doesn’t necessarily mean that armed conflict — let alone nuclear war — is anywhere close to breaking out. What’s new here is that the Trump administration is openly threatening the country in a way that neither the Bush nor Obama administration was willing to do, openly saying that it is prepared to use military force to rein in North Korea’s nuclear program.

Pyongyang has responded in kind, promising to raze US military bases in South Korea, calling them “the strongholds of evil.”

And the fact that all of these events have happened since Wednesday is a stark reminder that it’s North Korea, and not Russia or ISIS, that might actually pose the gravest and most immediate threat to American national security.

Here’s a quick guide to what happened and what it all means.

Rumors of a North Korean nuclear test and a possible US preemptive military strike

On Wednesday evening, reports began circulating that North Korea (formally known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK for short) was poised to carry out an underground nuclear weapon test.

Around the same time, reporters on the ground in North Korea — who had been invited by the government to cover an upcoming military parade — started tweeting that they were being rounded up and put on buses to be taken to an undisclosed location.

They had previously been told by the regime to expect a “big and important event” to take place that day, and many speculated they were being taken to a nearby nuclear testing site to witness what would be the country’s sixth nuclear test.

Turns out they were being taken to witness the opening of a new street that was completed last month. That’s it. A street. (To be fair, it is a pretty nice street.)

Yet rumors of an impending nuclear test persisted. Then on Thursday, NBC News came out with an anonymously sourced but profoundly unsettling story:

The report, which cited unnamed intelligence officials, said the US was “prepared to launch a preemptive strike with conventional weapons against North Korea should officials become convinced that North Korea is about to follow through with a nuclear weapons test.”

This, of course, was a terrifying development: A US military strike against North Korea could prompt that country’s volatile leader, Kim Jong Un, to launch a devastating military strike against South Korea, a staunch US ally defended by American troops stationed there. In other words, this could potentially launch an all-out war with North Korea.

Luckily, it seems the NBC News report was wrong. Multiple other news outlets were unable to confirm that initial report, and defense and intelligence officials aggressively downplayed the possibility of a preemptive strike, calling the report “wildly wrong,” “crazy,” and “extremely dangerous,” according to Fox News’s Jennifer Griffin.

NBC may have gotten the story wrong, but the very fact that the substance of the article seemed plausible was a vivid illustration of how quickly the standoff with North Korea has intensified. The Trump administration’s aggressive rhetoric toward North Korea made a story about what would be an American act of war against the world’s most dangerous and least predictable regime sound like a viable possibility.

And that alone is disturbing.

A military parade, a failed missile test, and (more) threats of nuclear war

North Korean soldiers carry flags and a photo of late leader Kim Il Sung during a military parade on April 15, 2017, in Pyongyang.
AP Photo/Wong Maye-E

On Saturday, North Korea held a huge military parade to celebrate the “Day of the Sun.” It’s one of the biggest, most important annual celebrations for the regime, celebrating the anniversary of the 1912 birth of Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s founder and the current leader’s grandfather.

The spectacle featured tens of thousands of soldiers marching in perfect unison, military aircraft flying in formation, and a dazzling array of military hardware rolling through Pyongyang's main Kim Il Sung Square — including large canisters that analysts said could be carrying new types of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that could one day be capable of hitting the United States.

“This was a promise of future capabilities more than a demonstration of existing missiles,” Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, which tries to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, told the Washington Post. “We do not know if there is actually an ICBM in that canister. But it is certainly coming.”

Though the 33-year-old dictator was in attendance at the parade, Kim didn’t address the crowd himself. One of his close aides did, though, delivering a pugnacious speech aimed directly at the United States.

"If the United States wages reckless provocation against us, our revolutionary power will instantly counter with annihilating strike, and we will respond to full-out war with full-out war and to nuclear war with our style of nuclear strike warfare," Choe Ryong Hae, one of the most powerful officials in the North Korean government, declared.

The chest-pounding threat was somewhat undercut a few hours later when the North Korean military attempted a missile launch — only to see it blow up "almost immediately," according to US military officials. What was intended to be a strong, defiant show of force quickly became an international embarrassment.

Vice President Mike Pence has some harsh words for North Korea

The failed missile launch also came mere hours before Vice President Pence landed in South Korea as part of a 10-day swing through Asia. While there, he made a surprise trip to the heavily fortified border with North Korea — known as the demilitarized zone, or DMZ — and delivered a strong message to Pyongyang.

“Just in the past two weeks, the world witnessed the strength and resolve of our new president in actions taken in Syria and Afghanistan,” he told reporters. “North Korea would do well not to test his resolve or the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region.”

Echoing an earlier statement from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Pence told CNN that the administration was “going to abandon the failed policy of strategic patience.” This refers to the Obama administration’s approach toward North Korea, which essentially entailed working with international partners to increase pressure on the North Korean regime in the hope that it eventually to choose to give up its nuclear weapons on its own.

A shift in policy — or just a shift in rhetoric?

All of this sounds threatening, and it is certainly a clear rhetorical shift from the last administration. Until recently, though, we haven’t seen much in the way of real, substantive policy changes out of the Trump White House when it comes to North Korea. For instance, Trump has made a big deal out of his attempts to coerce China into taking a bigger role in trying to get North Korea under control.

But while Trump may be going about this more aggressively than has been done in the past — he seems to have offered China some economic concessions if they agree to be tougher on North Korea, for example — this is essentially the same basic policy that the Obama administration pursued with China.

Similarly, the US military announced in early March that it had officially begun the deployment of the THAAD anti-ballistic missile defense system in South Korea.

THAAD, which stands for Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, is designed to detect and then intercept incoming ballistic missiles in their “terminal” phase — that is, when they’re on the way down, not on the way up. It’s a system that’s already deployed in Guam on an “expeditionary” basis, and is now being deployed in South Korea to protect against any incoming missiles from the North.

While that might sound like a pretty aggressive policy move by the Trump administration, the deployment of the THAAD system to South Korea had actually been in the works for months, going back to the Obama administration. And despite it being a highly controversial move that has angered China and even some in South Korea, Trump clearly agreed with his predecessor that deploying THAAD was an important part of the strategy to protect the close US ally from any threat by North Korea.

In other words, until recently, the difference between the Obama administration’s approach to North Korea and the Trump administration’s had largely been a change in the degree of intensity, not a change in actual substance. Trump seemed to be following the same basic policies that the Obama administration did, albeit slightly more aggressively.

That may be changing. On April 9, just days after the last North Korean missile test, the Trump administration announced it was sending the 97,000-ton USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier, along with a guided-missile cruiser and two destroyers, to the waters off the Korean Peninsula.

That kind of military move on the part of the US lends some serious heft to the Trump administration’s forceful public statements. An aircraft carrier heading your way sends a message that no amount of belligerent late-night tweets can.

All of this means that the long-simmering North Korea situation may now be entering a new level of crisis; there’s a new sheriff in town in Washington, and as his recent actions in Syria and Afghanistan seem to be signaling, he’s not afraid to use force to get his message across, consequences be damned. How the unruly North Korean outlaw will ultimately respond remains to be seen.

Watch: The North Korean nuclear threat, explained

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