It was rhetoric that seemed more in line with the sort of bombast regularly issued by the North Korean regime's own state mouthpiece. That outlet swiftly decried the “nuclear war hysteria of the U.S. authorities including Trump,” saying that regional tensions have “reached an extremely reckless and rash phase for an actual war.” For good measure, the North Koreans made noises about targeting Guam, a U.S. sovereign territory in the South Pacific, with “enveloping fire.”
On Wednesday, Trump and other administration officials renewed their own tough talk. White House adviser Sebastian Gorka said the situation was “analogous to the Cuban missile crisis” and trumpeted the supremacy of the American “hyperpower.” A leading evangelical adviser to the president even declared that “God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un,” North Korea's dictator.
There are two different yet equally justifiable reactions you could have to this fit of rhetorical brinkmanship. One, understandably, is profound concern. It emerged that Trump's “fire and fury” statement was an off-the-cuff comment that took many of his advisers by surprise. Impetuous improvisation is a risky tack while navigating a showdown that Trump's own advisers say is similar to the most dangerous nuclear standoff in history.
“The more the crisis escalates, the greater the dangers of miscalculation, and the harder it will be for either side to find an exit ramp from a high-stakes crisis,” wrote Scott Snyder of the Council on Foreign Relations.
But the heated atmosphere can also be seen as an extension of a cagey yet manageable status quo. Trump's recent predecessors have all at various times struck a tough pose against the North Koreans, knowing full well that military escalation would endanger tens of millions of lives in the region. And North Korea's leadership may be monstrous, but it is not suicidal. Kim would be unlikely to want to provoke a war that would lead to his own annihilation.
“What the president is doing is sending a strong message to North Korea in language that Kim Jong un would understand, because he doesn’t seem to understand diplomatic language,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Wednesday. “I think it was important that he deliver that message to avoid any miscalculation on their part.”
But there's another party that's also hearing Trump's bellicose message — China, North Korea's only real ally.
“Washington’s diplomatic goal, although it hasn’t been stated publicly this way, is to encourage China to interpose itself between the United States and North Korea and organize negotiations to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula,” wrote Washington Post columnist David Ignatius. “The U.S. threat is that if China doesn’t help the United States find such a diplomatic settlement, America will pursue its own solution — by military means if necessary.”
Trump's impatient tweets, combined with Kim's incessant missile tests, were followed by both the Chinese and the Russians going along with a tough new round of sanctions at the U.N. Security Council. It remains to be seen whether Beijing and Moscow will fully implement the agreed-upon measures, which could gut the North Korean economy by a third. But the present tensions are not welcome in Beijing, which is coping with a series of political disputes on its borders, including a standoff with India over contested territory near Bhutan.
China has been “put in an intolerable position by Pyongyang,” Ignatius wrote. “China has been flashing red lights about the North Korean program for more than a year. President Kim Jong Un’s regime responded by conducting North Korea’s fifth nuclear test last September and continuing its missile tests, despite urgent Chinese warnings. Kim’s slap to Beijing even included assassinating his half brother Kim Jong Nam, who was under Chinese protection.”
Yet, for all their frustrations, China's interests when it comes to North Korea still don't align with those of the United States. China fears the prospect of a unified Korea allied with the United States and has long sought to preserve the buffer presented by the totalitarian pariah state. It has boosted its military presence on its border with North Korea in anticipation of further instability on the other side, or a refugee exodus spilling into its territory.
“They appear to be preparing to push deep into North Korea in the event of crisis,” wrote Graham Allison of Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
And while China puzzles over how to rein in Kim, it occupies a complicated place in the deliberations of Washington's key strategists. According to a story in the New York Times, there are ideological fault lines within the White House over the nature of the challenge.
“The president’s aides are divided on North Korea, as on other issues, with national security veterans like Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, on one side and Stephen K. Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, and his allies on the other,” wrote Peter Baker and Glenn Thrush of the Times. “While General McMaster and others consider North Korea a pre-eminent threat that requires a tough response, Mr. Bannon and others in the nationalist wing argue that it is really just a subset of the administration’s conflict with China and that Mr. Trump should not give more prominence to an unstable rogue operator like Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s leader.”
The disjointed and sometimes contradictory messaging of the Trump administration may play into the tense weeks ahead, with the White House possibly taking an even harsher line with Beijing. Former NATO military commander James Stavridis argued in a column that the United States should resist Chinese demands for a cessation in naval exercises around the Korean Peninsula as a precondition for talks.
Even as various sides push for negotiations, the war of words will no doubt continue. And as it intensifies, the dangers of miscalculation will only grow.
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