In his seven chaotic months in office, President Trump has publicly insulted members of his own Cabinet, Senate Republicans, the hosts of Morning Joe, the Obama administration, and the nation’s intelligence services. He’s mused about firing special counsel Robert Mueller, publicly questioned America’s commitment to NATO, and threatened to punish Qatar, a vital Middle Eastern ally.
But nothing Trump has said is more dangerous than his continued verbal assault on North Korea, which he has threatened to hit with “fire and fury” and “things ... they never thought possible.” He went even further Friday, boasting that “military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely.”
That last tweet was a lie — the US military hasn’t moved any additional troops or weaponry to the region, and isn’t anywhere close to being ready for war — but it was a revealing, and dangerous, comment all the same.
Here’s why: North Korea has spent decades issuing apocalyptic-sounding threats to turn Seoul into a “lake of fire,” “mercilessly wipe” out US forces, and bring about the “final ruin of the US" with its "precision and diversified nuclear striking means." For good measure, it’s also warned that it could destroy Manhattan, kill all of its inhabitants, and burn the city “down to ashes.”
Then, threats made, North Korea has backed down. Pyongyang has taken provocative steps, including mounting a deadly attack against a South Korean warship, but the ruling Kim family has stopped short of total war. They haven’t used the tens of thousands of artillery pieces positioned along their border to actually hit Seoul or Tokyo. They haven’t tried to shoot down an American plane or bomb a US military base.
And that, in large measure, is because American presidents of both parties chose not to respond to the North Korean threats by making apocalyptic-sounding threats of their own. They recognized that North Korean leaders liked to bluster and metaphorically pound their chests, but in service of winning concessions or being treated as equals by other world powers.
Trump’s comments — many of which were improvised and came as a shock to his own advisers — threaten to take things in a very different, and very risky, direction. Each Trump threat ratchets up tensions with Pyongyang and makes it harder for North Korea’s status-conscious leaders to back down without seeming to lose face. Put even more starkly, Trump’s public comments and tweets are making war with North Korea more likely, not less so.
Derek Chollet, who held senior national security positions in the Obama administration, told me that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis were pursuing “a reasonable strategy” of using economic and political pressure to further isolate North Korea.
The problem, he continued, is that Trump is saying things that run directly counter to their efforts to prevent the situation from spiraling further out of control.
“Trump, as usual, sees this as a test of manhood, yet it is hard to see how this will make his administration's strategy any more likely to succeed,” Chollet said. “The danger here is that this further isolates the US from its allies and raises the risk of miscalculation, and that this moves from a war of words to something more ominous.”
There is a single grim question looming over the entire North Korean crisis: What can be done to bring it to a peaceful end and avert the prospect of a war that would likely kill hundreds of thousands of people?
And there is a single grim answer: that war grows closer the more Trump talks.
Trump wants to scare North Korea into changing its behavior. He should change his own first.
It’s very easy to listen to North Korea’s rhetoric, look at the size of its 1.2 million-man army, and conclude that Kim Jong Un is serious about attacking South Korea, Japan, and — one day — the United States.
Those aren’t irrational fears. Last month, North Korea shocked many outside observers by testing an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting New York and Washington. A recent Defense Intelligence Agency study concluded that North Korea would be able to add a nuclear warhead to that missile in less than a year.
The threat, in other words, is very real, and Trump is right when he says that decades of diplomatic efforts and economic sanctions have failed to prevent Pyongyang from continuing to improve its nuclear capabilities.
The dangers come from Trump’s apparent belief that North Korea would actually use those weapons given that the US response would effectively erase North Korea from the map. Trump sees North Korea as a fundamentally irrational country willing to put its very existence at risk as part of a misguided effort to strike its enemies. He’s largely alone in that view.
In a 2007 paper for the US Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute, Andrew Scobell and John Sanford argued that North Korea was developing nuclear weapon for a profoundly rational reason — ensuring its own survival by deterring Washington from trying to invade the country and topple its government:
While one cannot rule out a nuclear first strike by Pyongyang, given the extremely small amount of nuclear weapon making material available and almost certain massive retaliation North Korea could expect from the United States, it appears more likely that North Korea’s nuclear doctrine is focused on deterring an attack by the United States and as a way to gain leverage at the negotiating table.
As my colleague Zack Beauchamp has noted, North Korea “is deeply insecure [and] so worried about its own survival that it is willing to go to dangerously provocative lengths to scare the United States and South Korea out of any potential attack.”
That, in a nutshell, is what makes Trump’s comments so counterproductive, and so dangerous. Trump has chosen, apparently on his own, to explicitly talk about doing the things North Korea worries about most. President Theodore Roosevelt famously talked about speaking softly while carrying a big stick. When it comes to North Korea, Trump would do the entire world a favor if he went one step further and stopped speaking about North Korea at all.
For more on Trump’s handling of the North Korean crisis, check out the latest episode of our Worldly podcast here.