So crude, so bellicose were Donald Trump’s words on North Korea that it was easy to mistake them for those of Kim Jong-un. Sounding more like a video game boss than a US president, Trump threatened “fire and fury like the world has never seen”.
North Korea’s reported acquisition of a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on an inter-continental missile (and reach the US) demands a serious response. But Trump’s apocalyptic rhetoric risks backing both himself and his nemesis into a corner.
Though the North Korean regime is typically depicted as crazed, its pursuit of nuclear weapons rests on rational foundations. The fearsome project gives the hermetic state what it craves: attention and influence. For Kim, the lesson from the fall of Saddam and Gaddafi is that tyrants pay a price for relinquishing their arms. The persistent threats from the US strengthen Kim’s domestic position and reinforce a siege mentality. Though North Korea must be deterred from a pre-emptive strike, it must also be offered incentives to pursue a different path.
As Trump’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson remarked a mere week ago: “We do not seek a regime change, we do not seek a collapse of the regime, we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula, we do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th Parallel. We are not your enemy … but you are presenting an unacceptable threat to us, and we have to respond. And we hope that at some point they will begin to understand that and we would like to sit and have a dialogue with them.”
The new nadir reflects the failures of the past. In 1994, the Clinton administration persuaded North Korea to freeze its nuclear programme in return for economic and diplomatic concessions. A communique declared that neither state had “hostile intent” towards the other. But this progress was undone by the Bush administration, which branded North Korea a member of the “axis of evil” and refused to renew the communique.
The subsequent six-party talks (also including China, Russia South Korea and Japan) were similarly undermined by the US. As Korea expert Mike Chinoy records in the Washington Post, in 2005, the Bush administration provocatively “designated Macau’s Banco Delta Asia, where North Korea maintained dozens of accounts, as a ‘suspected money-laundering concern.'” When a new agreement was reached in 2007, “Washington hard-liners demanded that Pyongyang accept inspections of its nuclear facilities so intrusive one American official described them a ‘national proctologic exam'”.
For North Korea, the benefits of nuclear weapons (a “treasured sword of justice” in Kim’s words) continue to outweigh the costs. Even the toughened UN sanctions (which will ban one-third of the country’s $3bn) will not deter Pyongyang from this course. As Rex Tillerson recognised, diplomacy may succeed where punishment has failed.
Once again, North Korea is rational enough to avoid a pre-emptive strike against the US, which would bring “fire and fury” upon it (the threat to attack the US territory of Guam is most likely just that). Rather, the risk is of miscalculation as Kim takes Trump both literally and seriously and rushes to action. Like his Korean counterpart, the US president has every reason to talk up the prospect of war as a distraction from domestic woes. But the consequences could be horrific. As on so many occasions, Trump should recall the advice of one his predecessors, Theodore Roosevelt, “speak softly and carry a big stick”.