Democracy Dies in Darkness

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North Korea is likely to fire more missiles after Trump’s speech, experts say

September 20, 2017 at 9:48 AM

A man walks past a TV screen in Tokyo on Wednesday showing President Trump speaking at the U.N. General Assembly. (Eugene Hoshiko/AP)

TOKYO — Kim Jong Un's regime tells the North Korean people every day that the United States wants to destroy them and their country. Now, they will hear it from another source: the president of the United States himself.

In his maiden address to the United Nations on Tuesday, President Trump threatened to "totally destroy North Korea."

Analysts noted that he did not even differentiate between the Kim regime, as President George W. Bush did with his infamous "axis of evil" speech, and the 25 million people of North Korea.

"President Trump has handed the North Koreans the sound bite of the century," said Marcus Noland, an executive vice president at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and one of the authors of its North Korea: Witness to Transformation blog. "That footage will be used time and time and time again on North Korea's state television channel."

Related: [That speech on North Korea was really unhelpful, China tells Trump]

Watch more!
At the United Nations General Assembly Sept. 19, President Trump called for preservation of sovereignty and slammed leaders in North Korea, Iran, Cuba and Venezuela. Here are key moments from that speech. (Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

Since the Korean War ended in an armistice in 1953, the Kim regime has portrayed the United States as an "imperialist aggressor" pursuing "hostile policy" to crush North Korea — again. To keep control of and unify the populace, the regime has kept alive the memories of the Korean War, when the United States destroyed 80 percent of all the buildings in the North and killed as many as 20 percent of its people.

North Korea's streets and airwaves are filled with calls to resist the American imperialists, and from a young age, children watch cartoons showing squirrels and hedgehogs (North Koreans) fighting off evil wolves (the United States).

The "threat" from the United States is the whole reason North Korea needs nuclear weapons, the regime tells the people, while denying them access to the Internet or any other outside information.

"The Kim regime argues that only it is capable of protecting the country from the existential threat North Korea faces from 'hostile foreign forces' led by the United States," Noland said. "All of the depravity and the denial of rights is all justified by this."

Trump's words feed right into that narrative, analysts say.

"This will reinforce the leadership's position that the United States is hostile to North Korea," said Jung H. Pak, chair of Korea studies at the Brookings Institution. "This is exactly what North Korea is talking about, and [Trump] said it right there on TV in front of the whole world."

Furthermore, Trump's "demonizing" of Kim personally will inflame the situation, she said.

At the United Nations, Trump referred to the 33-year-old North Korean leader as "Rocket Man," a moniker the president used on Twitter two days earlier. 

Related: [Trump, at the U.N., threatens to ‘totally destroy’ North Korea ]

Directing criticism at the Kims is heretical for a regime that has created an all-encompassing personality cult around its leaders, turning them into virtual deities. 

Previous attacks on Kim Jong Un personally have elicited an outsize response from North Korea's apparatchiks. When a U.N. commission of inquiry recommended that Kim be indicted in the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, North Korea's usually quiescent U.N. representatives strongly protested and even attended con­ferences to defend their leader.

"This slander against the supreme leader in front of an international audience . . . is going to cause the Foreign Ministry to have to leap to the defense of Kim, whether or not Kim orders it," said Robert Carlin, a former CIA analyst on North Korea who remains a close reader of its statements. 

Tuesday's speech came on top of Trump's previous warnings that Kim will feel the full "fire and fury" of the United States and that the United States was "locked and loaded."

These sentiments have been echoed, although in more nuanced terms, by the generals around the president, who have repeatedly said they have military options for dealing with North Korea, even if those would have "horrific" consequences.

Related: [Jitters and surprise in South Korea and Japan over Trump U.N. speech ]

If Trump's words are aimed at calling Kim's bluff and forcing him to stand down, they will almost certainly backfire.

"His speech could give Pyongyang an excuse or incentive to redouble its nuclear and missile development, which means more testing," said Duyeon Kim, visiting senior fellow at the Korean Peninsula Future Forum in Seoul.

The whole rationale of deterrence is to persuade the opponent not to carry out an intended action, because the costs outweigh their benefits, Duyeon Kim said. The question now is whether Kim's regime, which is struggling to interpret Trump's unconventional style, considers the threat real.

"Pyongyang might interpret his bluster as credible and work harder on its nuclear weapons," she said. "Or, Pyongyang might laugh and not take his warnings seriously, which is also a big problem, too. We just don't know for sure."

North Korea is, however, likely to glean one clear message from Trump's speech, analysts said: There's no point signing a denuclearization deal with the president, because he won't honor it.

Trump called the international nuclear accord with Iran an "embarrassment" and "one of the worst and most one-sided" agreements ever forged. He strongly hinted that his administration would soon back out of the deal with Iran's "murderous regime."

"His trashing of the Iran nuclear deal will raise warning signs for North Korea," said Pak, of Brookings. "This is not going to get them to talk if the U.S. is just going to tear it up."

Instead, North Korea will probably just wait out Trump, she said. "They think in terms of dynasties," she said, "and they know that we think in terms of electoral cycles."

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Related: Trump’s menacing United Nations speech, annotated

Related: Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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Anna Fifield is The Washington Post’s bureau chief in Beijing, covering greater China. She was the Post's bureau chief in Tokyo between 2014 and 2018, writing about Japan and the two Koreas. She previously reported for the Financial Times from Washington, D.C., Seoul, Sydney, London and from across the Middle East.

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