North Korea: Could the war of words lead to real war?
“This is the way a nuclear war begins,” said Barbara Demick in the Los Angeles Times—not with an epic struggle over ideology or territory, but with two emotionally stunted world leaders trading schoolyard threats and insults. The namecalling started, unsurprisingly enough, with President Donald Trump, who in a speech last week to the United Nations referred to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un as “Rocket Man” and threatened to “totally destroy North Korea” if Kim doesn’t abandon his pursuit of nuclear weapons. Kim replied by vowing to “tame the mentally deranged U.S. dotard with fire.” When Trump sent B-1 bombers on a menacing mission off North Korea’s coast, Kim’s foreign minister said America’s words and actions constituted a “declaration of war,” and threatened to shoot down any U.S. warplane that even comes near the country. During a fiery speech at a rally in Alabama, Trump mocked Kim with the even more insulting nickname “Little Rocket Man,” said Julie Hirschfeld Davis in NYTimes.com. The crowd gave a “rapturous roar,” but among foreign-policy and national-security experts, “reactions ranged from nervous disbelief to sheer terror.” Is it possible we survived the Cold War just to “careen into a nuclear confrontation driven by personal animosity and bravado?”
Trump’s blunt threats have ruffled “foreign-policy sensibilities on the Eastern Seaboard,” said Daniel Henninger in WSJ.com. But given Kim’s insistent warnings that he was preparing to inflict “nuclear Armageddon” on a U.S. city, he needed a reminder that any move in that direction will get him wiped off the map. With the belligerent and erratic Kim building an arsenal and test-firing long-range missiles, we’ve entered “a nuclear reality incomparably more dangerous than anything in the previous seven decades.” Unlike our former foes in the Soviet Union and China, Kim is not a rational actor, and he can’t be reached with the diplomacy and positive incentives the U.S. has been offering him, his father, and grandfather for 24 years. Enough appeasement. Trump’s tough talk is welcome.
Actually, said Max Boot in ForeignPolicy.com, Trump’s “macho posturing” could lead us straight into war. No sane leader hurls personal insults at his counterpart in a “nuclear-armed state.” If the paranoid and inexperienced Kim “takes Trump’s words seriously, and then sees U.S. warplanes heading for his borders,” he may assume an attack is underway and have his artillery open fire on Seoul. At that point, well, “wars have a way of escalating.”
“The verbal threats are a sideshow,” said the New York Post in an editorial. “What matters is action,” and Trump has been “tightening the screws” on Kim. Just this week Trump hit North Korea with a new round of sanctions—targeting not only its banks and industries but also its overseas trading partners. China announced it will limit exports of oil and gas to Pyongyang, and ban the textile imports that are North Korea’s main legal source of cash. Economic pressure will never force Kim to give up his nukes, said Steve Coll in NewYorker.com, but combined with diplomacy, it could persuade him over time to back off his threats of an attack. But the way the rhetoric between two thin-skinned national leaders is escalating, a miscalculation or accident could lead to hundreds of thousands of deaths. That’s what ultimately makes the current standoff so “unsettling”: as these theatrically belligerent men threaten to plunge each other’s people into hellfire, “it is hard to know where performance ends and personality begins.”