Trump’s war of words with North Korea
President Trump exchanged apocalyptic threats with North Korea this week after U.S. intelligence analysts concluded that Kim Jong Un’s regime has created a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can fit inside a missile— a major step toward becoming a fullfledged nuclear power. Tensions began to escalate after the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed a new round of sanctions against North Korea over its nuclear program, leading Pyongyang to warn that it might take “physical action” against the U.S. and its allies. Trump struck back by vowing to unleash “fire and fury like the world has never seen” if Kim made “any more threats to the U.S.” Soon after, North Korea said it was examining plans to strike areas around Guam, a U.S. Pacific territory that hosts a key military base. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that no one should be panicked by Trump’s remarks and that the U.S. was not moving closer to taking military action. “Americans,” he said, “should sleep well at night.”
U.S. officials believe that North Korea now has an arsenal of about 60 nuclear weapons, and The Washington Post reported this week that U.S. analysts suspect the regime has also produced a compact warhead—a development most experts thought was years away. Pyongyang recently tested two intercontinental ballistic missiles that some experts say could reach as far as Chicago. But the dictatorship has yet to design a reentry vehicle able to carry a warhead through the upper atmosphere without burning up; analysts say that technology will likely be completed late next year.
What the editorials said
Trump’s threat “was reckless and unnecessary,” said The Washington Post. To raise the specter of nuclear war merely to ward off threats “is to draw a red line in the most foolish and destabilizing manner.” Americans might dismiss Trump’s threat of “fire and fury” as hype. But a paranoid, belligerent leader like Kim might hear those words very differently. The upshot could be “the kind of accidental entry into conflict that has haunted the globe since the dawn of the atomic age.”
After 30 years of failed diplomacy, the U.S. “has no options that don’t involve the risk of war,” said WeeklyStandard .com. Our best option is to shoot down one of Kim’s test missiles mid-flight with one of our advanced anti-missile systems. North Korea would be forced to spend more on its missile program to keep up with our technology, possibly bankrupting the regime. Of course, such an interception might be interpreted as an act of war. But “better a confrontation over a test missile today than a fullon war over a real one tomorrow.”
What the columnists said
Donald Trump with the nuclear codes was always a nightmare scenario, said Gabriel Schoenfeld in the New York Daily News. He’s “erratic and impulsive” and has wondered aloud why we make nukes if we’ll never use them. Now Trump desperately needs a distraction. His approval ratings are plummeting and as the Russia investigation closes in, “he faces humiliation of a kind he has spent his entire life trying to dodge.” A conflict with North Korea might be just what he needs to boost his ego and shore up support at home.
Give Trump some credit—his North Korea strategy “has been surprisingly successful,” said David Ignatius in The Washington Post. His public hectoring of China and its failure to rein in its client in Pyongyang likely helped persuade Beijing to vote in favor of tough sanctions at the Security Council. Trump’s fiery rhetoric could still alienate Beijing, and North Korea might refuse to back down, but there are some signs that his bullying approach might work.
But here’s the thing: Kim knows Trump is bluffing, said Eli Lake in Bloomberg.com. The last three presidents also threatened North Korea with military action, but never followed through. The reason? Seoul. Pyongyang has enough artillery in range of South Korea’s capital “to kill hundreds of thousands of people,” possibly starting a world war and throwing “the global economy into a tailspin.” Trump might be impetuous, but he and his advisers understand this reality. So we should expect more gleeful taunts from Kim in the coming weeks, proving Trump’s threat was “as hollow as past presidents’ pledges.”