On Tuesday morning, Donald Trump gave a bombastic speech to the assembled delegates of the United Nations. Pay special attention to how he addressed North Korea and its looming nuclear threat. Unlike most of what Trump said otherwise, its implications are as wide-ranging as they are grim.
“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,” said Trump. “‘Rocket Man’ is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.”
“Rocket Man,” you rightly guessed, refers to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The rockets in question include intercontinental-range ballistic missiles, potentially capable of reaching United States territory. Soon, experts agree, North Korea should be able to pair those rockets with a miniaturized nuclear warhead. And while Trump has made similar provocations before, either in impromptu remarks or ill-advised tweets, his UN taunting worsens an already alarmingly combustible situation—while also making it harder to defuse.
Sound and Fury
There are two very important things to understand about North Korea in this context. First, as Evan Osnos explored in depth in the New Yorker recently, no one in the US—including Donald Trump—has perfect insight into what Kim Jong-un thinks about Trump’s various conflagrations. The country comes by its “Hermit Kingdom” moniker honestly.
But the international community does know at least one fundamental detail about the North Korean state.
“My perception, based on 30 years of work on this, is that North Korea is paranoid that the United States is going to eliminate them,” says Jon Wolfsthal, a member of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation’s Szilard Advisory Board, and former special advisor to Joe Biden on nuclear security.
One can trace that paranoia back to the Korean War. In 1950, then-US president Harry Truman said that he was prepared to authorize the use of nuclear weapons to end the conflict. Ever since, North Korea has “lived under US threat perception,” says Jenny Town, managing editor of North Korea watchdog 38 North and assistant director of the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
“They point to several different actions and signals along the way, and they use this as a justification for why they need nuclear weapons, in order to deter the United States from any preemptive attack,” says Town. “They’ve seen this happen in the past, with Iraq, with Lybia. Early in the Trump administration they saw the bombing of Syria and Afghanistan. They’re trying to prevent this from happening to them.”
Those two ingredients combine into one bitter stew. Trump has once again threatened and provoked a country knowing not what specific reaction he might inspire, but with the general understanding that the rhetoric can only strengthen North Korea’s nuclear resolve. And while cheap nicknames worked for Trump on the campaign trail, “Little Marco” and “Lying Ted” didn’t have an arsenal capable of destruction on a global scale.
“In North Korea, Kim Jong-un is basically the state. If you’re threatening Kim Jong-un, or denigrating him, these are things Kim Jong-un takes as not only a personal attack but an attack against the state,” says Town. That attack burns even more when delivered in front of the United Nations.
In fairness, Trump’s remarks may have been precisely calculated, a four-dimensional chess move designed to bring about a political outcome, rather than barreling toward a disastrous use of force.
“I am convinced there is a solid strategy that is indeed mixing defense and deterrence on one hand with diplomacy and engagement,” says Patrick Cronin, a senior advisor, focused on Asia, at the bipartisan Center for a New American Security. “The president now has to balance the pressure part of the strategy with the diplomacy part of the strategy.”
Yes, Trump’s UN remarks could have served as a carefully calculated stick with some yet unseen carrot to follow. (By way of counterpoint, Wolfsthal asserts that Trump “has no clear strategy” and is “all id,” certainly plausible given the weight of evidence.) But even if so, bringing his vitriol to the UN does little to spur those diplomatic efforts. In fact, it likely hinders them.
A Little Help From Our Friends
As others have noted, there are no good options in North Korea. But any plausible solution that doesn’t end in nuclear catastrophe will almost certainly require a cooperative effort with Japan, South Korea, and China—not unilateral action from the US. Trump’s display today did nothing to further the goal of cooperation.
“It’s clear that the tone President Trump used at the UN is going to make it harder for us to get broader international cooperation,” says Wolfsthal. His performance may play well to his base, but to world leaders, it comes across as unsettling at best. That’s especially true for those in close proximity to North Korea, who have repeatedly urged Trump to knock it off. Instead, Trump has once again ratcheted things up.
“The way that most people are interpreting these messages is that the US is goading on war,” says Town. “The more they make these kinds of statements, the more they match bombastic rhetoric with bombastic rhetoric, the rest of the world gets very anxious.”
‘President Trump is making it seem to countries around the world that we’re the ones that are just as unreasonable as North Korea.’ —Jon Wolfsthal, Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation
Trump defenders often point to the incendiary talk that Kim Jong-un uses, and has used for years, as justification for Trump’s similarly loaded rhetoric. Aside from the obvious absurdity of introducing I know you are but what am I to a potential nuclear conflict, the US risks more than just self-respect by wading in Kim Jong-un’s gutter.
Wolfsthal says that the Obama administration’s Iran deal, which limited that country’s nuclear pursuits, illustrates the benefits of the high road.
“We were able to get effective international cooperation by showing we were prepared to negotiate, that we were reasonable, and that it was Iran that was being unreasonable,” says Wolfsthal. “In this case, President Trump is making it seem to countries around the world that we’re the ones that are just as unreasonable as North Korea.”
Sticks and Stones
If you’re looking for some modestly good news, most analysts agree that rhetoric alone won’t provoke a military exchange. “Words are pretty cheap when it comes to North Korea,” says Cronin.
And indeed, Kim Jong-un and Trump simply rattling sabres makes for a fine best-case scenario. Given the stakes, though, that seems like a poor bet, especially given that each exchange increases the chance that either side makes a strategic miscalculation. Remember: We don’t know what North Korea thinks, other than a decades-old certainty that the US represents an existential threat.
“When does someone overplay their hand,” says Town. “The red lines have been blurred so much over the years, and with each one of these new statements, we just don’t know right now where that threshold is.”
“Language is the dry kindling. You still need a spark,” says Wolfsthal. “The problem is, a spark can come from almost anywhere, and we don’t have a monopoly on the ability to control that.”
In isolation, Trump’s bluster may amount to only that. Taken in combination with an unexplained power outage in North Korea, or a fishing vessel that strays too far, or one of dozens of other potential scenarios, it could help burn down the region.
The US could still pursue diplomacy. Tensions could still gradually ease. On stage at the UN Tuesday, Trump took his best opportunity yet to kick off that process, and in a few short lines, reduced it to rubble.