The US State Department travel warning was updated while Pyongyang slept at 2am Korea Standard Time and while its instructions were dramatic, it was the regime reaction that set off full-scale war.
Underneath a red danger shield icon emblazoned with a capitalised X, Washington had told its 140,000 citizens in south Korea to evacuate the region through the department website.
“Due to the serious and mounting risk of conflict on the Korean peninsula, the secretary of state restricted the use of US passports to travel into or through or residence in South Korea, effective immediately,” the release declared.
A discussion at the Royal United Service Institute on London Whitehall on Thursday fictionally identified the routine bureaucratic upgrade of travel advice by the US government as one scenario in which a North Korean conflict was triggered against the backdrop of escalating regional tensions.
The end of former president Barack Obama’s policy of strategic patience has coincided with a dramatic upgrade in North Korea’s nuclear weapons capabilities, resulting in a shift in the potential for warfare, according to the Rusi report.
“War is now a real possibility. With North Korea making rapid progress in its missile and nuclear programmes, time is not on diplomacy’s side,” the report said. “Donald Trump and his senior officials have said America will not tolerate a North Korean [intercontinental nuclear missile threat] to its territory and citizens and that ‘classical deterrence theory” is not applicable.”
Addressing the United Nations last week, Mr Trump taunted the North Korean leader as “rocket man on a suicide mission”. North Korean representatives said the president’s speech was itself a declaration of war and threated to shoot down US planes patrolling in the region.
The security-focused think tank reported that fighting can be avoided but it said the implications of a conflict can now be foreseen and examined. “The escalation we are seeing is such that war in this case is more likely than any of the other scenarios we talk about such as the US and China in the South China Sea,” said the study author Malcolm Chalmers.
“Clearly there is nervousness. The greater unpredictability of President Trump clearly has many urging that the US does not take a pre-emptive strike.”
The travel advice scenario rests on Kim Jong-un’s regime being bombarded with warnings of a pre-emptive attack during a period in which a series of abnormal measures had already taken place, such as sending infantry reinforcements to South Korea.
A stand-off in which the US moves naval, missile batteries and troops to north-east Asia would leave all sides ready for battle and suspicious of new developments.
Even a travel warning could be taken by Pyongyang as a signal of a US pre-emptive strike and lead North Korea to fatefully decide to get its own retaliation in first. A US forces exercise last June practiced for just such an evacuation of American civilians from South Korea.
In the circumstances North Korea is likely to launch artillery and rocket strikes across the demilitarised zone. In response the US would authorise devastating air strikes and a cyberwar offensive.
Pyongyang’s options would then see a campaign of infiltration into South Korea to disrupt the enemies behind the line. Massive use of chemical and, possibly, nuclear weapons would accompany Pyongyang’s ground attack.
The implications of war are bleak both for the Korean nations as well as the rest of the region.
“Within the first few weeks, there could be hundreds of thousands of casualties in both North and South Korea, including the deaths of thousands of US military personnel and civilians,” Prof Chalmers said. “If China also gets involved militarily, or if nuclear weapons are used, it could be a lot worse. International trade and investment would suffer as economic activity slumped in one of the globe’s most productive regions.”
The report catalogued a variety of ways that conflict could begin, mainly relating to a North Korea action that triggers a response from the US. “North Korea could strike first if it believed the US were moving towards a surprise attack or a US attack might be triggered by North Korean test missiles hitting the ocean near Guam or California,” the report said.
Even the golden bullet scenario in which the finger of the North Korea leader is removed from the nuclear button is unlikely to ease the threat to the US. “The North Korean command and control for nuclear weapons won’t want any launches without the express order from the leader but will have made provision for an attack if the leadership is destroyed.”
Given that America’s allies, including Japan and South Korea, would have just hours to decide to join an attack or signal opposition, Prof Chalmers said friendly countries should be warning Washington to reject all plans for a pre-emptive strike.