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This was the scariest part of Trump’s State of the Union

He talked about North Korea the way George W. Bush talked about Iraq.

South Korean army soldiers pass by a signboard showing the distance to North Korea's capital Pyongyang and to South Korea's capital Seoul from Imjingang Station in Paju, South Korea, near the border with North Korea, on January 4, 2018.
Seung-il Ryu/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union speech concluded with a powerful story about a North Korean defector who was tortured and starved by that country’s brutal government.

The president described Ji Seong Ho’s suffering in excruciating detail, painting the North Korean government as an enemy of humanity — and of Christianity.

“He woke up as a train ran over his limbs. He then endured multiple amputations without anything to dull the pain,” Trump said. “His tormentors wanted to know if he’d met any Christians. He had — and he resolved, after that, to be free.”

Trump’s recounting of Ji’s suffering served a very specific political purpose — to illustrate the core point of the speech’s discussion of North Korea: A country that mistreats its people so cruelly cannot be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons.

“North Korea’s reckless pursuit of nuclear missiles could very soon threaten our homeland,” Trump said. “We need only look at the depraved character of the North Korean regime to understand the nature of the nuclear threat it could pose to America and to our allies.”

If this all sounds familiar, it should. In 2002, President George W. Bush gave what’s now the most infamous State of the Union in modern memory. The speech described Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as an “axis of evil” — states that supported terrorists and thus posed a fundamental threat to the United States. We now know that this speech was designed to sell the war in Iraq, to paint Saddam Hussein’s government as an intolerable threat to the United States.

What’s really striking is looking back on the language that Bush used in that speech to discuss Iraq. He made the exact same rhetorical move that Trump did in his story about Ji — painting Saddam’s abuses of his own people as proof that the regime might well turn its fire on innocent Americans:

Iraq continues to flaunt its hostility toward America and to support terror. The Iraqi regime has plotted to develop anthrax and nerve gas and nuclear weapons for over a decade. This is a regime that has already used poison gas to murder thousands of its own citizens, leaving the bodies of mothers huddled over their dead children. This is a regime that agreed to international inspections then kicked out the inspectors. This is a regime that has something to hide from the civilized world.

Trump discussing North Korea in the same way that Bush discussed Saddam is a troubling warning sign. This is how American presidents sell wars absent an imminent threat. They paint the prospective enemy as evil, an enemy of civilization, something that must be defeated both to preserve our own safety and to secure the future of humanity.

And like in 2002, we have spent months hearing about proposals inside the White House for a preemptive strike. Many assumed these were a bluff — but many informed observers have come to believe they are not. When I interviewed a slew of Korea experts last month, the consensus was that we are far closer to war than most Americans believe.

The difference between 2002 and now is that war with North Korea would be far, far bloodier than even the terrible war in Iraq. The North’s artillery could kill tens of thousands of civilians in Seoul, South Korea’s densely populated capital, within the first hours of a conflict. A protracted fight would lead to destruction on the Korean Peninsula on a scale unheard of since the Korean War in the 1950s, with millions of deaths on both sides.

The North’s nuclear missiles could easily reach Tokyo; most major American cities are also within their range. Imagine a nuclear strike on New York City — hundreds of thousands of Americans dead or irradiated in a catastrophe that would dwarf 9/11 by multiple orders of magnitude — and you start to understand what’s at risk here.

Just before Trump’s ominous speech, we learned that Victor Cha, a highly respected North Korea scholar at Georgetown University, had been dismissed from consideration as a possible ambassador to South Korea (a currently unfilled post). This is highly unusual at this stage — Cha had already gone through security checks and been approved by the South Korean government.

The reason, according to reports in the Washington Post and the Financial Times, is that Cha had criticized the administration’s proposed plans for a strike on North Korea in private. Shortly after the news broke, Cha published an op-ed in the Post attacking the proposed plan as too dangerous and unlikely to work.

“I empathize with the hope, espoused by some Trump officials, that a military strike would shock Pyongyang into appreciating U.S. strength, after years of inaction, and force the regime to the denuclearization negotiating table,” Cha wrote. “Yet, there is a point at which hope must give in to logic.”

Cha, it seems, is worried about the Trump administration actually starting a war with North Korea. The State of the Union showed that we should be too.