President Donald Trump is praising North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un for pulling back on his threat to launch missiles near Guam.
“Kim Jong Un of North Korea made a very wise and well reasoned decision,” Trump tweeted on Wednesday morning. “The alternative would have been both catastrophic and unacceptable!”
The recent deescalation on both sides is good news for those worried about a potential US-North Korea war. But Kim still has the ability to order a strike if he wants. Even worse, Trump may interpret Kim’s decision to back down as proof that his own belligerent rhetoric is what produced this current moment of calm. That could be a problem down the line.
“The worry is if Trump really thinks Kim backed down (he did not) because of Trump's fire and fury threat (no evidence of that), then Trump believes threats work,” Vipin Narang, a nuclear expert at MIT, told me. “And that's super dangerous.”
Trump could make the threat worse
Kim has been briefed on the North Korean military’s plan to send missiles toward Guam. The state-run Korean Central News Agency released a photo on August 14 showing Kim reviewing the launch plans.
Kim Jong Un is not being subtle here. Note the black line on the map in front of him. pic.twitter.com/gdcdkJCD5e— Joshua H. Pollack (@Joshua_Pollack) August 14, 2017
But on Monday, KCNA reported that Kim “will watch a little more the foolish and stupid conduct” of the United States before he decides to launch any missiles toward Guam. So for now, at least, Kim has decided to hold off.
Yet “the implicit threat remains,” Narang says. “Kim Jong Un is now briefed and poised to give the order if he thinks the US gives him a reason to.”
Meanwhile, the country continues to develop nuclear weapons and improve its ballistic missiles. That means North Korea will continue to antagonize the United States and its allies even if a strike on Guam isn’t imminent. And it could get worse if the lesson Trump learned from the standoff with North Korea was that his harsh comments deescalated the matter.
“If Trump believes that his bluster is having a positive impact, that would be a dangerous misreading of the situation,” says Kingston Reif, a nuclear and missiles expert at the Arms Control Association. As Reif points out, Trump’s comments haven’t stopped North Korea from advancing its missile capabilities since he took office.
In fact, Trump might have already made things worse. “Trump has once again drawn a red line, stating that testing toward Guam would be ‘both catastrophic and unacceptable,’” Reif continued. In other words, should Kim choose to launch missiles toward Guam — which still remains a remote possibility — Trump just implied that the US would respond in a big way.
So while it seems a bit odd that Trump is congratulating Kim for not attacking America, it’s perhaps better that the president is lobbing compliments toward North Korea rather than missiles.