Will North Korea Attack the U.S.? It Would Be a 'Suicidal' Move, Russian Expert Reports From Pyongyang

This photo taken on November 29, 2017, and released on November 30, 2017, by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency shows the launching of the Hwasong-15 missile, which is capable of reaching all parts of the U.S. North Korean officials don't think it's in the country's best interests to strike the U.S. first, a Russian expert was recently told while in Pyongyang. KCNA via KNS/AFP/Getty Images

North Korean officials are taking the possibility of conflict with the U.S. seriously, but the first strike won't come from them, a Russian expert who recently visited Pyongyang wrote on 38 North, a North Korea–monitoring website based in the U.S.

Alexander Vorontsov, a scholar who holds several teaching and research posts, including head of the Korean and Mongolian studies department at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Moscow-based Russian Academy of Sciences, visited the country in mid-November and met with Foreign Ministry officials and diplomats.

North Korea observed a six-week break in missile launches between September 15 and November 29, but the prospect of war with the U.S., which held a series of joint military drills with South Korea during that period, never stopped preoccupying the officials who spoke with Vorontsov.

"In their eyes, the Pentagon is rehearsing elements of a coordinated military operation one step at a time," Vorontsov wrote.

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According to him, North Koreans officials believe the U.S. public opinion is inching closer to supporting a pre-emptive strike because they fear Pyongyang would attack the U.S. as soon as it had the opportunity to do so—a serious misperception, one diplomat told Vorontsov.

"It would be suicidal to attack the USA first and especially with nuclear weapons. We understand that it would be the last day of our country," the unnamed diplomat said, in Vorontsov's words.

North Korea's state-controlled media and propaganda have often threatened nuclear strikes on the U.S. mainland and the territory of Guam, but according to the North Korean experts who spoke with Vorontsov, what the country wants to achieve via the development of nuclear weapons is leveling the playing field with the U.S.

"They expressed bewilderment over why the political establishment in the US is unwilling to ask itself a very simple question: even if North Korea does develop the capability to target the continental US with nuclear weapons, why would it launch such weapons if it would result in the destruction of North Korea? These weapons are being developed to preserve the survival of North Korea," Vorontsov wrote.

In a departure from previous statements expressing skepticism about talks with North Korea, at a press conference on Wednesday, President Donald Trump shrugged off media reports indicating the White House was debating the possibility of a pre-emptive strike. Instead, he expressed satisfaction with the first inter-Korean talks in two years held this week.

"We have certainly problems with North Korea, but a lot of good talks are going on right now—a lot of good energy.... I like it very much," the president said, quoted in The Guardian.

Trump also repeated his intention of achieving "peace through strength," first mentioned in a speech to South Korean lawmakers in November, a motto echoing an adage dating back to ancient Rome that says, "If you want peace, prepare for war."

While from Vorontsov's account it remains unclear whether North Korea is serious about peace, Vorontsov's sources say they are ready for any eventuality. "Pyongyang…is not bluffing when it says that 'only one question remains: when will war break out?'" he wrote, adding. Vorontsov added that North Korean officials told him soldiers are so prepared, they "have long been sleeping without removing their boots."