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The past 3 days in US-North Korea tensions, explained

Thankfully, the US and North Korea are lobbing insults at each other for now instead of actual bombs.

An Air Force F-15C Eagle takes off from Kadena Air Base, Japan, Sept. 23, 2017.
US Air Force/Senior Airman Quay Drawdy

Tensions between the US and North Korea are already high, but this past weekend pushed them even higher — and to an even more genuinely scary place.

Two developments stand out in particular. North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho said in a UN speech on September 23 that it was “inevitable” North Korea would launch missiles at the US mainland. That came just days after President Donald Trump used the same venue to declare that America might “totally destroy” North Korea if it continued to threaten the US or its allies. Trump also belittled North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un as "Rocket Man," a petty insult likely to infuriate the notoriously thin-skinned dictator

Hours before Ri’s speech on Saturday, Trump sent US bombers to fly in international waters along the North Korean coast in a provocative show of force. Trump doesn’t appear to have much public support for the belligerence: According a new poll, it turns out that 67 percent of Americans don’t want to attack North Korea preemptively.

And all of that came before Ri this morning threatened to shoot down American warplanes “even when they are not yet inside the aerospace border of our country.”

So it’s safe to say the situation got worse over the past few days, and that the American people are already worried about what’s going on. What follows is a quick recap of the past 72 hours in the US-North Korea standoff.

The US and North Korea are in a war — of words

Thankfully, the US and North Korea are lobbing insults at each other for now instead of actual bombs.

During his speech to the UN General Assembly on September 19, Trump said America would “totally destroy” North Korea if Pyongyang continued to threaten the US or its allies, adding that “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.”

Three days later, Kim fired back with sharply personal language of his own, claiming he would “surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged US dotard with fire.”

The menacing remarks didn’t end there as Ri got his chance to address the UN on Saturday — using the opportunity to go after Trump.

“Due to his lacking of basic common knowledge and proper sentiment, he tried to insult the supreme dignity of my country by referring it to a rocket,” Ri said. “By doing so, however, he committed an irreversible mistake of making our rockets' visit to the entire US mainland inevitable all the more.”

“None other than Trump himself is on a suicide mission,” he continued.

Trump didn’t like those comments and later that night used his favorite tool, Twitter, to threaten to wipe North Korea off the map:

It’s worth noting that North Korea isn’t just made up of belligerent Kim regime officials. The country is home to around 25 million people — all of whom are in harm’s way should Trump choose to strike North Korea. And any attack on the North would likely lead Pyongyang to order attacks on South Korea’s capital, Seoul, where around 25 million people live in its metro area.

That means it’s still unlikely Trump would order a military strike — but he’s clearly thought about it.

On August 1, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told NBC’s Matt Lauer that he had a conversation with Trump where the president said he would bomb North Korea if it continued testing missiles. “If there’s going to be a war to stop him, it will be over there,” Graham recounted. “If thousands die, they’re going to die over there. They’re not going to die over here — and he’s told me that to my face.”

As my colleague Zack Beauchamp noted, it’s a horrifying thing for a sitting senator to say because of the thousands who would die in such an attack — but it’s worse knowing that it also reflects the president’s view.

Trump sent bombers to scare North Korea. It didn’t work.

Hours before Ri even spoke at the UN on September 23, the US flew an undisclosed number of B-1B bombers and F-15 fighter jets from Guam and Japan, respectively, into international waters off the coast of North Korea.

“This is the farthest north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) any US fighter or bomber aircraft have flown off North Korea’s coast in the 21st century, underscoring the seriousness with which we take [North Korea’s] reckless behavior,” Dana White, the Pentagon’s top spokesperson, said in a September 23 statement.

Today, Ri responded by claiming North Korea has the right to shoot down any US bombers even if they’re not in his country’s airspace. Why? Because North Korea believes Trump’s “won’t be around for much longer” tweet was a declaration of war.

That could pose a problem down the line because one of Trump’s favorite ways to show he’s tough on North Korea is to fly bombers near it. On July 29, he sent two B-1Bs near the North-South border after Pyongyang tested a missile that could likely reach most of the US mainland. The American planes were joined by South Korean and Japanese fighter jets on the mission.

But sending planes to intimidate North Korea isn’t new. In 2013, for example, the US and South Korea practiced a bombing run where two American B-2 stealth bombers dropped eight fake munitions near North Korea as part of an annual exercise.

So the cycle of threat-bombers-threat-bombers isn’t likely to go away anytime soon. The hope is that the cycle breaks before either the US or North Korea miscalculates.

Americans are wary of starting a war with North Korea

Trump stands largely alone in his apparent eagerness to hit North Korea. Most Americans approve of launching a military strike on North Korea “only if North Korea attacks US or allies first.” That’s according to a new Washington Post-ABC poll released on Sunday that shows 67 percent of respondents don’t want a preemptive strike on the North.

That’s a striking figure given the past few months of missile and nuclear tests coupled with heated rhetoric from both sides.

In part, the American public may on some level understand that a fight with nuclear-armed North Korea would almost certainly be a humanitarian disaster. One war game convened by the Atlantic magazine back in 2005 predicted that a North Korean attack would kill 100,000 people in Seoul in the first few days alone. Others put the estimate even higher. A war game mentioned by the National Interest predicted Seoul could “be hit by over half-a-million shells in under an hour.” The bottom line: there is very little upside to attacking North Korea.

For now, it looks like most Americans — 76 percent — support economic sanctions as a way to encourage Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons. That actually aligns with the Trump administration’s policy. Top Trump officials, especially Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, continue to say the US wants tougher sanctions on North Korea so it has no choice but to negotiate an end its nuclear and missile programs.

Still, Trump could be derailing that effort with his bluster. And that means that war with North Korea remains enormously unlikely, but it’s not impossible.