The world is currently holding its breath. North Korea has declared plans to fire rockets toward the Pacific island of Guam, where the United States has a military base. However, in its saber-rattling threat, Pyongyang declared that the missiles would go down in the sea 30 to 40 kilometers (19-24 miles) off Guam. This would be just outside US territorial waters, so, politically speaking, the United States would not necessarily be obliged to strike back.
There are, however, fears that this could still prompt a violent escalation. Even if North Korea did deliberately fire wide, US President Donald Trump, who recently threatened Pyongyang with "fire and fury," may still feel provoked. Or the North Korean rocket might accidently fall inside US territory after all. What is clear is that if there were to be a military confrontation, it would affect the whole international community.
1. Would the NATO states be obliged to come to the aid of the US?
Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty states that "an armed attack against one or more [member states] in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all." However, this is limited by Article Six, which says that this mutual assistance obligation applies only to attacks "on the territory of any of the Parties in Europe or North America" or "on the territory of or on the Islands under the jurisdiction of any of the Parties in the North Atlantic area north of the Tropic of Cancer."
This elaborately formulated clause excludes the island of Guam, as it is too far south. However, people in NATO circles are saying that the allies are unlikely to insist on this limitation and would support the US nonetheless.
2. What form would support take?
Support in the sense of the NATO treaty does not inevitably mean that all the allies would send battleships to the South Pacific if Guam were attacked. Article Five does state that the members of the Alliance must, in principle, provide assistance, says Matthias Dembinski from the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt: "However, it's up to them to assess how they provide this support." As far as Germany is concerned, the political scientist speculates: "We would provide diplomatic help, we would declare solidarity, but we probably wouldn't provide military support."
3. What about Britain?
The government in London has always maintained a "special relationship" with the United States. This has seen British troops go to war alongside the Americans on several occasions, as, for example, when the United Kingdom entered the Iraq War in 2001 together with the former US president George W. Bush.
The British have always upheld the transatlantic relationship and the NATO partnership. However, the security expert - Matthias Dembinski - doesn't believe Britain would leap to America's aid if Guam really were to be attacked. In terms of security policy, he argues that the UK does not have as much of a presence in the western Pacific region as it once did.
4. Who else might provide the US with military support?
Although a North Korean attack on the United States is so far only hypothetical, Australia has already assured America of its support. The Australian premier Malcolm Turnbull explained that this was an absolute requirement in the ANZUS Pacific security pact. In fact, the treaty contains no such obligation. The partners in the alliance are simply supposed to consult each other in the event of an attack. However, Australia is regarded as a reliable partner in military operations: It participated in both the Korean and the Vietnam Wars, and sent relatively high numbers of troops to both.
This is also the case with South Korea, which sent the highest number of troops to Vietnam after the United States. However, if the conflict with North Korea were to escalate, the question would not really arise, as South Korea would in any case probably be the country worst affected by North Korean aggression.
Elsewhere in the region, Japan is also on the side of the USA. However, the Japanese are unlikely to get involved militarily. There are very narrow constraints built into the country's pacifistically orientated constitution, and despite the growing pressure from Washington there is still great skepticism among the population regarding all things military.
5. How likely is a war between the US and North Korea?
Matthias Dembinski does not believe that the question of military assistance will arise: The number of casualties in a war on the Korean peninsula alone would be so high that he believes both sides must have a fundamental interest in avoiding a military escalation.
Furthermore, the United States has sufficient military might to respond to any such military strike without the aid of its European allies, Dembinski says. All in all, he is of the opinion that much too much is being made of the whole current confrontation.Nina Niebergall (cc)