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Trump threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea. I asked 8 experts how worrisome that is.

One expert responded just by sending a photo of Edvard Munch’s famous painting The Scream.

World Leaders Address Annual United Nations General Assembly
US President Donald Trump addresses the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters, September 19, 2017 in New York City.
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

On September 19, President Donald Trump gave his first speech to the United Nations General Assembly. His harsh rhetoric toward North Korea stood out — mostly because he threatened to obliterate the country of 25.4 million people.

“No nation on Earth has an interest in seeing this band of criminals arm itself with nuclear weapons and missiles,” Trump said, referring to the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. “The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”

“Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime,” he continued, using his new favorite nickname for Kim.

Trump clearly believes that using this kind of belligerent rhetoric to threaten North Korea is the best way to get Kim to back down. But is it? Or does this kind of saber rattling only serve to increase the tension and make war more likely?

To find out, I reached out to eight North Korea experts and asked them for their reactions to the president’s remarks.

Several said that Trump’s threat to “totally destroy” North Korea was counterproductive and might encourage Kim to continue his nuclear and missile programs. Melissa Hanham, senior research associate in the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterrey, merely responded with a photo of Edvard Munch’s famous painting The Scream.

A few noted that it was similar to what other presidents, including President Obama, have said before. Several also expressed concern over the ambiguity of the threat — that it wasn’t clear if what, exactly, Trump was willing to do.

Only one expert I talked to felt Trump’s comment was a net positive. Matthew Kroenig told me that the president’s comments “reinforced the deterrence message.”

The experts’ full responses, lightly edited for clarity and style, are below.

Trump’s comments were dangerous

Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia nonproliferation program, Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey

I think it’s important to understand why these remarks are so dangerous. I keep seeing people defending Trump, saying, “Who cares of we hurt Kim Jong Un’s feelings?” That totally misses the point.

Trump’s remarks make two mistakes. First, they actively aid North Korea’s propaganda because a lot of people in Japan and South Korea will conclude that Trump is as much the problem as Kim. Americans seldom pay attention to politics in allied countries, but they can be tremendously important.

Second, Trump is basically creating audience costs for Kim to back down. If you dare Kim, it creates pressure for him to respond with his own provocation. The last time we saw the North Koreans let a Trump threat pass, it was the comment about the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test not happening. In hindsight, it’s clear North Korea didn’t forget; it just took them time to be ready.

Trump acting like a fool isn’t the end of the world — at least he didn’t pull the nuclear codes out of his jacket and wave them around — but it does make our North Korea policy incrementally more difficult.

Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy, Arms Control Association

First, the statement that "Rocket Man is on a suicide mission" is another alarming data point suggesting that the president does not believe Kim is rational or can be deterred. This follows on McMaster claiming last month that "classical deterrence theory" doesn't apply to North Korea.

Never mind that there is no good reason to believe that North Korea can’t be deterred and contained, though of course this approach won't be easy or risk-free. If the administration truly believes that North Korea can’t be deterred and that a nuclear-armed ICBM is unacceptable, then preventive military action becomes much more likely.

Second, Trump's threatening and bombastic rhetoric will only serve to reinforce the view in Pyongyang that it must retain and augment its nuclear capabilities to prevent a US attack. It will also likely make it easier for North Korea to make this case to China. Trying to “out-Kim Jong Un” Kim Jong Un is not a winning strategy.

Third, Trump missed an important opportunity to appeal to the international community to better implement existing sanctions and support efforts for a realistic, negotiated solution. Pressure and threats alone won't convince North Korea to change course. As President John F. Kennedy said following the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis: “Above all, while defending our own vital interests, nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to the choice of either a humiliating defeat or a nuclear war.”

Fourth, in trashing the Iran deal and threatening to unravel it, not only is Trump courting a second major nonproliferation crisis but he is putting a negotiated solution to reduce the North Korean threat even further out of reach. If Trump unravels the deal, Kim will understandably conclude that the United States can't be counted on to live up any agreement he might strike with it.

Vipin Narang, associate professor of political science, MIT

A lot is being made [about] the "totally destroy" language, but it followed "if [the US] is forced to defend itself or its allies" — so it was still a retaliatory threat. The concern is that the standard formulation "effective and overwhelming" is a bit more calibrated and allows for flexibility in response.

To threaten to "totally destroy" North Korea in retaliation for behavior we find unacceptable seems to imply a devastating nuclear response. But we don't know, and that's the problem.

North Korea, the US, and its allies understand what "effective and overwhelming" means. We are left to guess if there is daylight between that and "totally destroy." Maybe there is, maybe there isn't. But that ambiguity does not do much to enhance deterrence, which requires clarity and consistency.

Melissa Hanham, senior research associate in the East Asia nonproliferation program, Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey

The Scream.
Wikimedia Commons

Mira Rapp-Hooper, senior fellow, Yale Law School

I was disturbed by the president's remarks on North Korea. While the phrasing of his threat to destroy North Korea was unfortunate, Trump actually made that threat contingent: North Korea would be destroyed if it attacked the US or its allies.

This is not inconsistent with threats made by past presidents. I was chilled by his contention that "Rocket Man is on a suicide mission," because if Trump believes Kim to be suicidal, that implies the North Korean leader is neither rational or deterrable and may constitute a case for preventive war. We don't know if the president believes this or is using it to put pressure on the Chinese, but either way, it's dangerous.

I expect that National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, and the president have reminded us that there are military options because they are at least seriously considering some.

Ultimately, I do believe the national security team will conclude that the risks of a military operations are catastrophic, the benefits quite limited, and that some combination of containment, deterrence, sanctions, and eventual diplomacy are strictly preferable.

Trump’s comments weren’t that different from what previous US presidents have said

Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies, Center for the National Interest

While what Trump said has been said by President Obama, with the wording being different and in a different format, making remarks at the UN that America would "destroy" North Korea if we or our allies are attacked creates many questions.

For example, if Kim Jong Un were to attack with conventional weapons, does that mean we would launch a nuclear strike — the only way to really destroy a country? Or does that mean we would invade? What if North Korea launched a nuclear attack? Would we attack every military base and city with nuclear weapons in response? The wording, being vague on purpose, was also repeated on Sunday by [UN Ambassador] Nikki Haley, so that means this was a coordinated strategy in someway.

My guess is that team Trump is trying to keep Kim off balance, to make him wonder what we will do if he escalates. I would argue it’s time for policy specifics — and time to stop using such blunt statements.

Zachary Keck, Wohlstetter public affairs fellow, Nonproliferation Policy Education Center

This was basic American foreign policy with Trumpian characteristics.

Nothing he said was much different substantively from any of his predecessors. It was just said with more colorful language, although he did highlight North Korea's kidnapping of Japanese citizens, which is something Tokyo has long pushed the United States to do. He was right to do this.

That said, I didn't think it was appropriate to talk about destroying another country at the UN General Assembly.

Trump’s comments were a net positive

Matthew Kroenig, senior fellow, Atlantic Council

An essential element for US strategy toward North Korea is deterring the nuclear threat that exists here and now.

Trump reinforced the deterrence message yesterday by clearly communicating that the costs the US can impose on North Korea outweigh any potential benefit Kim Jong Un might hope to achieve from attacking the US or its allies.