Is the U.S. at war with North Korea?

Are the U.S. and North Korea at war?

No. Generally speaking, when the U.S. goes to war with another country, everybody knows it. At the same time, it's safe to assume that the U.S. is engaging to some degree in cyber warfare against North Korea. 

But the North Koreans say we're at war?

Here's what happened. On Monday, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho told reporters at the UN that a recent tweet by President Trump was "clearly a declaration of war." He then said that Mr. Trump's tweet gave North Korea the right to shoot down U.S. bombers that are patrolling outside North Korean airspace.

This is the tweet in question:

The White House quickly denied that the U.S. is at war with North Korea. "We've not declared war on North Korea, and frankly the suggestion of that is absurd," White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Monday afternoon. 

She's not wrong, but two things here are worth noting. The first is that the U.S. hasn't formally declared war on another country since World War II. Since then, military actions have all been authorized by congressional resolutions or conducted under the auspices of the UN.

The Korean War, which was fought to stop an invasion of South Korea by the North in the context of the Cold War, was technically a fight between the UN and North Korea. The U.S. made up the brunt of the UN force, however, and even though the war was fought to a stalemate, North Korea has never accepted the end result. Instead, the ruling Kim family insists they are the rightful rulers of the entire Korean peninsula, and that the South Korean government is really just a puppet government set up by the U.S.

So, technically speaking, the Korean War never really ended, and this has just been a 64-year ceasefire between the two sides.

Are the North Koreans going to start shooting down U.S. jets now?

A North Korean shoot-down of an American aircraft would be a massive provocation, especially given the current tensions. However, North Korea has shot down American planes before.

In 1969, on April 15 – the birthday of then-ruler Kim Il Sung – an unarmed American spy plane flying over international waters on a routine mission was blown out of the sky by a pair of North Korean jets. The attack killed the plane's entire 31-person crew.

In response, an inebriated President Richard Nixon is thought to have at least pondered the possibility of a nuclear response. But with the U.S. still embroiled in Vietnam, the Nixon administration instead opted to just resume the flights with fighter escorts.

What are the chances the U.S. and North Korea do go to war?

"We are closer to a nuclear exchange than we have been at any time in the world's history with the single exception of the Cuban missile crisis," retired Admiral James Stravidis told the Los Angeles Times this week about the possibility of a nuclear war on the Korean peninsula. He said the chances of war with North Korea are now at 50 percent, and that there's a 10 percent chance this all ends with a nuclear exchange.

Can the North Koreans hit the U.S. with a nuclear missile?

They could likely hit American forces in Asia, and it's quite possible they now possess the technology to launch one at the continental U.S. According to Gen. Joseph Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the U.S. should assume that North Korea could now directly hit the American mainland.

"There are some technical elements of their program that haven't been fully tested," Dunford said during Congressional testimony on Tuesday, "from a re-entered vehicle to the ability to stabilize a missile in flight, but I view all of those as engineering solutions that will be developed over time. And frankly, I think we should assume today that North Korea has that capability, and has the will to use that capability."

What options does the U.S. have to combat all this?

The U.S. has a few options, although there's widespread agreement among experts that there are not really any good ones. Any war with North Korea would be exceptionally bloody and violent, and although just about every observer agrees that the U.S. would eventually win such a confrontation, it's quite possible that millions could die in the process.

Other options short of full-scale war, such as a series of surgical strikes or the assassination of North Korean despot Kim Jong Un, are also a massive gamble. In addition to its nuclear weapons and rockets, North Korea is thought to possess massive quantities of chemical and biological weapons, from plague and anthrax to smallpox and VX nerve gas. It also has one of the largest armies in the world to fall back on, and a population brainwashed into worshiping the Kim family like living gods.

But experts gaming out a war on the Korean peninsula always come back to what may be the North's scariest asset: its artillery. The South Korean capital of Seoul is less than 40 miles south of the demilitarized zone, and well within the range of the North's thousands of conventional big guns. The Seoul metropolitan area has 25 million people and is the capital of the 11th biggest economy on earth. And even without resorting to weapons of mass destruction, North Korea could destroy it all.

Is there any reason to feel good about any of this?

Good might be a stretch, but war between the U.S. and North Korea is no sure thing. For starters, nobody seems to want one: Should war break out, North Korea would be destroyed and the U.S. would be responsible for the cleaning up perhaps the greatest humanitarian crisis since World War II. It's a lose-lose proposition, at least from a rational standpoint.

Perhaps Kim Jong Un is a totally irrational person. However, a lot of experts figure he puts his regime's survival before everything else, and therefore is unlikely to start a war he can't win. He may acquire, or have already acquired, the ability to destroy an American city with an ICBM. But unlike Russia or China, he has no theoretical ability to destroy the U.S. outright with a nuclear strike.

That's reassuring?

Right now, it's the best we've got.