Given the high stakes, it was unusually aggressive language from a U.S. president. Stranger still, this language has clear echoes to threats made by North Korea to the United States and its allies.
In recent years, Pyongyang's state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) has repeatedly threatened to turn the South Korean capital, Seoul, into a “sea of fire” if attacked. North Korea has even produced propaganda videos imagining what such an attack might look like. Last year, the website DPRK Today released video of a simulated attack on Seoul. The video ended with the warning: “Everything will turn into ashes.”
Washington is often the target of similar threats from North Korea. On Sunday, Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the ruling Workers' Party, warned that sanctions or other actions against Pyongyang would result in the United States being “catapulted into an unimaginable sea of fire.”
In North Korea's highly productive state media machine, bellicose language and over-the-top threats are virtually a cliche. When supreme leader Kim Jong Un ousted his uncle Jang Song Thaek in December 2013, KCNA described him as “despicable human scum Jang, who was worse than a dog, perpetrated thrice-cursed acts of treachery in betrayal of such profound trust and warmest paternal love shown by the party and the leader for him.”
U.S. leaders have received somewhat similar treatment. KCNA once accused President Barack Obama of being a “clown” and said then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry had a “hideous lantern jaw.” In June, a commentary in Rodong Sinmun called Trump a “psychopath” who might launch a preemptive strike on North Korea to distract from domestic problems.
The sheer frequency of these threats and insults has long made them easy to dismiss. Trump himself has spoken with relative kindness about Kim, calling him a “pretty smart cookie” in an April interview. Now that developments have made clear that North Korea's weapons program is developing and may soon, if not already, pose a threat to the United States, Trump appears to have changed his rhetoric.
But in doing so, he may have set himself an impossible red line: The president warned of “fire and fury” not if North Korea carried out another missile test but if it made another threat. And North Korea often makes threats.