Threats of 'fire and fury' could invite it across Korea and beyond

If the intent is to avoid a military confrontation with North Korea unless it is necessary, a fight that could quickly get out of hand and potentially lead to an exchange of nuclear weapons, President Donald Trump is going about it the wrong way.

On Tuesday, Trump tried to out-macho North Korea’s baby-faced despot, Kim Jong Un.

"North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen," Trump told reporters.

The warlike pronunciation by Trump followed reports from U.S. intelligence sources that North Korea had developed the ability to miniaturize a nuclear warhead to fit atop the long-range missiles it is increasingly testing.

One might argue that Trump was seeking to communicate to Kim in the only manner he would understand. But the trouble with calling out Kim publicly is that it forces him into a position where he must respond to save face.

Case in point came the responding threat from Pyongyang of pro-active action in light of Trump’s statement. North Korean media warned of pre-emptive military strikes against the U.S., including on its military bases in the Pacific territory of Guam.

As the rhetoric ratchets up the chances of miscalculation increase, with one side mistakenly interpreting the actions of the other as a military attack or pretext for attack. An escalating series of military responses could quickly spin out of control.

Consider the ultimatum delivered by U.S. Defense Secretary Mattis on Wednesday after the threat aimed at Guam.

"(North Korea) should cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and destruction of its people," read a statement issued by Mattis.

Trump, meanwhile, tweeted about the use of nuclear weapons with the nonchalance of someone discussing moving pieces on a game board.

“Now far stronger and more powerful than ever before,” tweeted Trump about the U.S. nuclear arsenal. “Hopefully we will never have to use this power.”

Of course, the U.S. nuclear arsenal has been "stronger and more powerful" in the past, but thanks to arms control agreements, nuclear weapons have been dialed back here and in Russia. The nuclear arsenal also has some serious maintenance issues, particularly the land-based component, and that has yet to improve under Trump.

The president's lack of accuracy aside, the point is that backing North Korea’s delusional demigod into a corner is not a good strategy.

Instead of the bellicose rhetoric, the Trump administration would have been better off quietly delivering the message to Pyongyang that its nuclear program was crossing a line that the U.S. will not tolerate. That approach would give Kim a chance to stand down from the rapid escalation of his nuclear program, while keeping up his tough-guy rhetoric for local consumption.

At this point, the realistic goal has to be containment. The Trump administration is making the right move in continuing to pressure China to more aggressively push back on Kim. Progress was made in getting the United Nations to buy in on tougher international sanctions.

Kim has made the calculation that his survival and that of his regime depends on being a nuclear power. It is a lesson recent history has taught him.

In 2003, Libyan strongman Muammar al-Gaddafi renounced his nuclear weapons program and relations with the U.S. improved. In 2011, Gaddafi was overthrown, tortured and killed.

Iraq’s dictator, Saddam Hussein, was captured and executed in 2006, following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, an invasion that would have been unlikely if Hussein’s regime had nuclear weapons.

Through tougher sanctions, including with greater help from China, the world needs to sell Kim on the calculation that pushing for weapons that threaten the U.S. and other international powers will decrease, not improve, his chances of survival. And he needs to get the clear message that using a nuclear weapon would guarantee a devastating response.

But better to slowly tighten the chains on this mad dog than to poke him with a stick.

The world has seen other brutal dictatorships fall. In time, this one will as well. And while a military response may prove necessary — despite the massive loss of life, destruction and world economic distress it would cause — U.S. leaders need to be more careful not to invite such an action prematurely.

 

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.

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