When North Korea threatened to use nuclear weapons against the US in the event of an American invasion, the only question was how long it would take President Trump to respond, and what he would say.
The answers: a few hours, and with a statement that’s equal parts scary and comically overwrought.
“North Korea had best not make any threats against the United States,” Trump told reporters. “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
President Trump: If North Korea makes any more threats to the U.S., "they will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen" pic.twitter.com/8dQed79L1W— NBC News (@NBCNews) August 8, 2017
The funny part of this is that Trump appears to be aping the over-the-top tone that North Korean press statements are famous for — and that are often used by North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
Two days ago, after the United Nations approved a US-backed proposal to impose new sanctions on North Korea, Pyongyang threatened that America would “pay the price thousands of times for its crimes,” adding that “there is no bigger mistake than the United States believing that its land is safe across the ocean.” The tone of Trump’s statement is basically the same, just with the countries reversed.
The scary part comes from the fact that Trump seems to have forgotten, again, that the words of an American president carry weight — and that there’s a reason presidents from both parties have avoided this kind of rhetoric.
“His words could ... lead Pyongyang to miscalculate or believe it needs to act preemptively if it believes a US attack is imminent,” Laura Rosenberger, the former National Security Council director for Korea and China, told me. “Those consequences could be catastrophic.”
Trump is reacting to North Korean rhetoric in the worst way possible
Overheated rhetoric like Tuesday morning’s threat to use nuclear weapons against US is a longstanding feature of North Korea propaganda, and not something that means an attack is actually going to happen. It’s such a commonly used part of Pyongyang’s playbook that there are a number of long-running parodies of it, like the satirical Twitter account DPRK News.
The Western response is, typically, to not take it super seriously. Angry rhetoric is one way North Korea tries to scare the international community into giving it what it wants, including financial aid, international meetings, and other concessions. It’s a negotiating tactic.
This doesn’t mean that the North Korean nuclear program isn’t a serious threat. It is, of course. North Korea has recently tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that, in theory, could reach New York and DC. A new estimate from the Defense Intelligence Agency, reported by the Washington Post on Thursday, suggests that North Korea has up to 60 nuclear weapons — at least some of which could be attached to an ICBM.
Rather, it’s that most leaders understand that North Korea is a rational country that understands the US would destroy it in the event of an actual war, and thus does not want to start a major conflict with the US over nothing. Threats, like the one issued today, are not actually seen as serious.
Trump’s response today breaks the pattern. By matching North Korean threats with similar threats, he raises the level of overall tensions and signals to North Korea that something might be different with this administration. This worries North Korea experts, who do not see it as a well-thought-out strategic shift.
“He blusters when he doesn't know what to say,” Jeffrey Lewis, an expert on North Korea at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, tells me.
Instead, it suggests that the US is more likely to be belligerent than it was in the past, exactly the opposite of the signal the president should be sending at a time when tensions over the North Korean nuclear program are at an all-time high due to recent missile tests.
“The situation is not going to become safer by threatening North Korea,” Jenny Town, the assistant director of the US-Korea Institute, tells me. “It is only going to antagonize an already tense relationship, risking the safety of the United States and our allies in Asia, South Korea, and Japan by raising the potential for conflict — whether intentional or accidental.”