Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Despite Trump's Escalating Rhetoric, Little Evidence Of War Preparations


President Trump tweeted this morning that military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely. So the rhetoric surrounding North Korea keeps escalating. We're going to talk now with NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre about whether military preparations match that rhetoric. Hi, Greg.


SHAPIRO: Does locked and loaded have a specific military meaning?

MYRE: It really doesn't. I mean, in the general sense the U.S. is always locked and loaded in South Korea. The U.S. has been there for a long time. But it adds to this escalating rhetoric that we've been seeing in the past couple days, the talk about fire and fury. Couple quick points - it's a real break with this presidential tradition of giving a sort of firm but measured statement. And we've seen some of the president's advisers like Defense Secretary Mattis talking about the focus being on diplomacy. That's more the kind of thing we've seen in the past. And it also - note from the North Korean side its leader, Kim Jong Un, has not taken part in these exchanges. He's left that to his generals.

SHAPIRO: How big is the U.S. military presence in this region?

MYRE: It's robust. The U.S. has 28,000 troops permanently stationed in South Korea. And they're going to get a bit of a boost. There are some exercises, long-planned exercises, set for August 21. So a few more Americans will come in there. But this is a presence there to deter an attack from North Korea at any time. But what we're not seeing is the kind of moves you would expect if the U.S. was preparing for a major war.

For example, the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan just ended a three-month deployment in the region and returned to its port in Japan. I've spoken to a lot of analysts about that, and they say you would see much greater movement. And they also said perhaps most of all, there are many U.S. citizens in South Korea. And we've seen no evacuation notices, no indication that these civilians would be asked to move.

SHAPIRO: So it sounds like reasons not to worry. What about on the North Korean side? Are there mobilizations happening there that the U.S. is aware of?

MYRE: Well, a lot of things we can't see in North Korea, so we don't know the details. Now, they have threatened to shoot missiles towards Guam in the Western Pacific. And you've certainly got to take that seriously. But it really doesn't make sense to announce military plans days in advance. And all the analysts seem to think that Kim Jong Un's paramount goal is to keep himself in power. And any time he would fire or initiate a conflict, he would put his regime at tremendous risk.

And it's also important to remember that really, his main audience is his home audience. He's really directing a lot of this rhetoric towards them. It's what legitimizes him with this talk of the U.S. planning to attack. I spoke with Jonathan Pollack, a longtime Korea watcher at the Brookings Institution. And here's what he had to say.

JONATHAN POLLACK: For all of their bluster, for all of their words, the North Koreans are much more careful in their actions than they are in their words.

SHAPIRO: In the unlikely scenario that North Korea does follow through on its threat, what might a missile exchange between the U.S. and North Korea look like?

MYRE: It would be very unpredictable. And there's probably infinite scenarios. But let's perhaps talk about the one that North Korea has already raised of shooting towards Guam. The U.S. has anti-missile batteries in Guam that have worked well in tests. It could potentially shoot down those missiles. But then it would be faced with the choice of should it respond by going after a North Korean missile base or a nuclear facility?

And then you get into the situation of very rapid escalation. And neither side could confidently predict what the other side is intending to do. So I think there is the sense that if a first shot is fired, it would be very hard to stop the shooting.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Thanks.

MYRE: Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.