'Mistakes happen': How 'miscalculation' could spark a U.S.-North Korea conflict

Despite increased rhetoric, many experts dismiss the idea that a conflict between the U.S. and North Korea is imminent, yet there remains the threat that "miscalculation" could snowball into something much larger — and with dire consequences.

U.S. senators to meet today with senior Trump administration staff about situation with North Korea

VIDEO: North Korea shows off its massive firepower

6 years ago
Duration 0:35
VIDEO: North Korea shows off its massive firepower

Despite heightened tensions, many experts say it's unlikely the U.S. and North Korea are headed toward imminent military conflict.

While the leaders of both countries are impulsive and unpredictable, they are also desperate to avoid pre-emptive strikes. 

However, there remains the threat, albeit small, of a miscalculation — that amplified rhetoric, a military mistake, or the misinterpretation of an action by any of the main actors in the region could snowball into something much larger.

"We're talking about a highly unlikely chain of events happening all at once aligning to create that sort of circumstance," said Philip Yun, a former member of a government working group that managed U.S. policy and negotiations with North Korea under Bill Clinton. "But that is a possibility and if it's going to happen, chances are it's going to happen in this heightened state. 

"Mistakes happen, so when mistakes happen, miscalculation is the enemy here."

War of words intensify

Every year around this time, tensions escalate between the U.S. and North Korea, as the Americans and their South Korean allies engage in a series of joint military exercises. Those actions bring with them grave warnings from Pyongyang, which threatens to launch some kind of retaliatory attack.

There's a lot of hysteria over Kim Jong-un's secretive North Korean government and concerns it will launch a pre-emptive strike on the U.S., according to one expert. But experts also dismiss the idea that a conflict between the U.S. and North Korea is imminent. (Saša Petricic/CBC)

On Tuesday, North Korea conducted a live-fire artillery drill, just as a U.S.-guided missile submarine arrived in South Korea, and a U.S. carrier headed to the Korea Peninsula to hold a joint exercise with South Korea.

But this year, the war of words between the U.S. and North Korea have intensified, particularly from the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump. The verbal barrages have been sparked by serious concerns that North Korea may be closing in on the development of a long range ballistic missile that could be armed with a nuclear warhead and aimed at the U.S. 

This sense of urgency has also been spurred by reports that North Korea is capable of producing a nuclear bomb every six or seven weeks, according to the New York Times.

U.S. President Donald Trump has sent out a number of provocative tweets against North Korea, including one that said the rogue state is 'looking for trouble.' (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)

"The Trump administration is jabbing much harder, talking more about the possibility of military action and just in general trying to ramp up the pressure," said Joel Wit, a senior fellow at the Washington-based U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS. "Then of course you get a North Korea response. So I think the combination of these two things has really heightened the temperature."

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is taking an unusual step today. All U.S. senators have been invited to the White House to be briefed by senior officials about North Korea. Those officials include Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, director of national intelligence Dan Coats and Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Some of Trump's provocative tweets against North Korea, including one that said the rogue state is "looking for trouble," have suggested that this administration is adopting a more aggressive tone.

However, Jonathan Pollack, interim SK-Korea Foundation chair of Korea studies in the Center for East Asia Policy Studies, said the president is surrounded by serious advisers who have either served or serve in the military, and are aware of the risks of military action.

Sober education

"I think Trump, whatever his public posture, is getting a sober education on some of the realities."

As for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Yun said there's a lot of hysteria over his secretive North Korean government and concerns it will launch a pre-emptive strike. 

"We look at North Korea in one-dimensional stereotypes that they're crazy and they could do anything," Yun said. "But they are not crazy, they are not irrational, they are not suicidal."

But Yun suggested it's still possible one of the regional actors could misinterpret an action, or that one of these [test] missiles goes off course and accidentally hits an important target.

"Things can start spiralling out of control."

The U.S. navy aircraft carrier the USS Carl Vinson approaches Busan port in South Korea to participate in an annual joint military exercise, called Foal Eagle, between South Korea and the United States. (Jo Jung-ho/Yonhap via AP)

Seoul and Pyongyang have remained technically in a state of war since the 1950-53 Korean War. There have been skirmishes in the past, exchange of artillery fire across the DMZ, naval clashes, and missiles have gone off course. Hostilities ramped up in 2010 following the sinking a South Korean warship that left 46 sailors dead, in an incident that Seoul blamed on the North Korea.

"There's a long history of these kinds of incidents and so far, they've been managed well in terms of avoiding escalation," Wit said.

Pollack said deterrence has worked remarkably well for more than 60 years as both sides understand the consequences of taking military action. 

"The question is whether those ground rules are changing now. I don't believe they are," he said.

Still, miscalculation is a concern, Pollack said, and too much rhetoric and idle chatter from both sides about pre-emptive strikes could lead one side to seriously consider taking action.

"There are extraordinary inhibitions in the use of force, but that's not a guarantee."

Window closing

But with North Korea on a path to long-range nuclear missile capability, the window is closing on stopping that program, said Rodger Baker, vice-president of strategic analysis at Stratfor.

Does that mean the U.S and North Korea are on the brink of conflict? No, he said. But the world has somewhere between 18 and 36 months to convince North Koreans to change their course of action, Baker said.

"I'd say we are on the brink in regards to an 18-month time frame, not on the brink in regards to [conflict] this weekend."


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

With files from The Associated Press, Reuters