In response to a new round of threats from North Korea, themselves spurred by new US sanctions led by the US, President Trump has now, rather casually, threatened North Korea with a nuclear holocaust. At a meeting on the opioid crisis a short time ago Trump just said: “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen,” Trump said. “He has been very threatening, beyond a normal state, and as I said they will be met with fire and fury and, frankly, power the likes of which this world has never seen before.”
The deteriorating situation on the Korean Peninsula and between the US and North Korea is neither new nor entirely of President Trump’s making. His volley of threats over recent months appears to have spurred the North Koreans to quicken the pace of their ICBM tests. There are reports today of US intelligence findings that the North Koreans are much further along than the US realized in miniaturizing a nuclear weapons to make them transportable on an ICBM. Given the administration’s credibility on this issue and generally, I think a good deal of skepticism is warranted on that front. But the pace of advance on building an ICBM is public and from what I can tell not really in dispute.
With all this said, the following thoughts.
First, the US dispute with North Korea has been on the edge of crisis now for two decades. My own belief is that George W. Bush’s administration wrecked a not great but workable formula in 2001-2003. After the nuclear breakout that made possible, everything changed. But the larger issue is that we’ve now seen a repeated practice of totalizing threats from the US without a viable policy to back it up. To be more concrete, we’ve threatened that all options are on the table and hinted at solving the crisis by military means when it doesn’t seem like we have any viable path to do so. So we walk away from diplomacy without a viable alternative, thus losing the advantages of diplomacy while gaining none of the advantages of force. Don’t threaten what you won’t or can’t do.
Second, President Trump is an impulsive egotist with a lot to prove and he’s generally surrounded by yes-men. His threat of “fire and fury like the world has never seen” sounds very much like the nutball threats which the current leader of the Kim family and the North Korean state news agencies frequently make – various rage-and-threat-speak about seas of fire and other such nonsense.
This is a really bad and dangerous situation to start with. It was bad when President Obama left office. It’s gotten much worse since – through some mix of US threats and North Korean testing out the new administration. The worst possible thing is a President who is stupid, impulsively emotional and has something to prove, which is exactly what we have. (You think his litany of failures as President so doesn’t make him eager for a breakout, transformative moment?) At the risk of stating the obvious, threats like this from a country that has the ability to kill everyone in North Korea at close to a moment’s notice can set off a highly unpredictable chain of events. What if North Korea issues more threats? Presumably Trump fails to respond with a nuclear attack and reveals his threats as empty or – truly, truly unimaginably – he launches a nuclear attack. These are not good choices to face.
The situation with North Korea would be an extreme challenge for a leader with ability and judgment. President Trump is simply too erratic, unstable and dangerous to be in charge in a situation like this.