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North Korea just pulled back from a Guam attack

But the threat still exists.

North Korea Launches Ballistic Missile Into Japanese Waters
People watch a North Korea's KRT television show a photo of North Korea's test-launched first intercontinental ballistic missile released by Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) at the Seoul Railway Station on July 4, 2017 in Seoul, South Korea.
Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

North Korea just announced it won’t imminently attack Guam.

Kim Jong Un “will watch a little more the foolish and stupid conduct” of the United States before he decides to launch any missiles toward Guam, the country’s state-run Korean Central News Agency reported on Monday.

However, Kim warned that if the US persists in its “extremely dangerous reckless actions on the Korean peninsula and in its vicinity,” he may reconsider his decision.

This is the first major sign of deescalation by North Korea since both sides exchanged threats in the past week. And it could provide an opening for the US and North Korea to walk back from the tit-for-tat escalation many feared could spiral into war.

“The statement sure looks like a [North Korean] attempt at deescalation,” Mira Rapp-Hooper, an Asia security expert at Yale Law School, said in an interview. “But,” she adds, “this is a pause, not a full reprieve.”

So, at least for now, North Korea is backing away from its threat to fire missiles near Guam. But both sides have a lot more work to do to avoid a crisis — and it’s not clear that will happen in the near future.

“The implicit threat remains,” MIT nuclear expert Vipin Narang told me. “Kim Jong Un is now briefed and poised to give the order if he thinks the US gives him a reason to.”

Tensions could soon rise again

The United States and South Korea are about to conduct a long-planned military exercise that could anger North Korea at a precarious time.

Starting August 21, tens of thousands of troops from both countries will participate in air, sea, and land exercises that they believe deter aggressive North Korea action.

But North Korea doesn’t see it that way. It believes the US and South Korea use this training to prepare for an invasion of the North.

There may be a reason for that. After all, CNN reports the trainings will include “amphibious landings, intense live-fire exercises, counter-terrorism drills, and simulated or tabletop battle plans.”

Showing its displeasure, Pyongyang put out a separate, more threatening statement yesterday about the exercise. “No matter what rhetoric they let out about ‘annual, regular, and defense’ drills, they cannot cover up the danger of a war outbreak,” the statement said. “What matters is that when a second Korean war breaks out, it would be a nuclear war.”

It’s worth noting that North Korea perennially issues dire threats right before these exercises but doesn’t follow through with them.

But in this case, Rapp-Hooper wonders if the two statements are meant to get the US and South Korea to alter the exercises in some way. “None of these statements identify what [North Korea] is asking for, but some modification to US-[South Korea] exercises this month is a reasonable inference,” she said.

Lt. Col. Christopher Logan, a Pentagon spokesperson, told me that there are currently “no plans to modify the exercise.”

That said, the Trump administration is also signaling that it doesn’t want a military fight with North Korea. “The object of our peaceful pressure campaign is the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on August 13.

“We do not seek an excuse to garrison US troops north of the Demilitarized Zone. We have no desire to inflict harm on the long-suffering North Korean people, who are distinct from the hostile regime in Pyongyang,” they continued.

So even with military exercises fast approaching, both North Korea and the US are publicly signaling that they don’t want the current standoff to end in conflict. They have both given each other an opening. The question now is if Washington and Pyongyang will seize this opportunity.