Trump's North Korea Threats Make for a 'Very Dangerous Moment'

Two megalomaniacal leaders with nuclear arsenals at their disposal. What could go wrong?

Photo Credit: Razvan Ionut Dragomirescu / Shutterstock

President Donald Trump's warning Tuesday that North Korea’s nuclear threats "will be met with fire and fury" did not scare Kim Jong-un. Within hours, North Korea responded with a threat to lay "enveloping fire" on Guam, the Pacific island that is home to a U.S. military base.

But Trump’s rhetoric did scare nuclear experts who see an unprecedented personal confrontation between two megalomaniacal leaders with nuclear arsenals at their disposal.

Tensions have been rising ever since North Korea carried out two nuclear bomb tests last year and two intercontinental ballistic missile tests in July. Trump has said he will not allow Pyongyang to develop a nuclear weapon capable of hitting the United States, which it is well on its way to doing.                           

“It’s a very dangerous moment,” said Eric Schlosser, author of Command and Control, a history of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex, that was also made into a documentary.

“It is remarkable that the president is imitating the rhetoric of the head of North Korea, and it is incredible that it is happening the same week as the anniversary of the atomic bombings,” Schlosser said in a phone interview with AlterNet.

The president’s bluster coincided with the 72nd anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombing of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the only nuclear attacks in world history, which killed 140,000 and 70,000 people respectively during World War II.

Cleaning Up

“The president’s rhetoric is ill-advised and dangerous,” said Kelsey Davenport, director of Nonproliferation Policy at the Arms Control Association in Washington.

“We know that North Korea only responds to threats with threats,” Davenport said. “The escalation of rhetoric could expand into a wider conflict.”

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s assurances Wednesday that Trump’s comments do not mean war is "imminent" could not undo the damage of Trump’s rhetoric, said Tom Collina, director of policy for Ploughshares, a disarmament advocacy group in Washington.

“He’s just cleaning up Trump’s mess,” Collina said in an interview. "The danger of miscalculation by either side remains. What we need is the Republican rhetoric of Teddy Roosevelt, who said, ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick.’ But Trump, it seems, isn’t capable of speaking softly.”

Rep. Madeleine Bordallo, Guam’s non-voting representative in Congress, urged Trump to deescalate.

"These recent threats make it imperative for President Trump to work with the international community, especially with China and other stakeholders in the region, to deescalate these tensions," she said in a written statement.

Derek Johnson, the executive director of GlobalZero, the international movement for the elimination of nuclear weapons, called the situation on the Korean peninsula a "full-blown crisis.”

“The Trump administration needs to immediately come to grips with that. That means putting an end to the president’s escalatory bravado and immediately opening a direct line of communication with Pyongyang, without preconditions," Johnson said in a statement. "Talking risks nothing; not talking risks everything."                              

Familiar Rhetoric

Trump’s impromptu threat to use force “like the world has never seen before” echoes the president's hyperbole on a host of other issues, noted Daniel Dale of the Toronto Star.

“I'm guessing that this talking point didn't come through the rigorous interagency process,” tweeted Dan Pfeiffer, who was communications director for the Obama administration.

“Kim Jong-un is now confronted with the dilemma that has vexed American voters and lawmakers alike,” Dale wrote. “Whether or not to take Trump literally.”

Kim has repeatedly backed up his words with force, writes Mark Bowden in the Atlantic. In 2010, North Korean forces sank a South Korean spy ship in response to South Korean military exercises.

North Korea, Bowden notes, “has missiles capable of reaching Tokyo, a metropolitan area of nearly 38 million. In other words, any effort to crush North Korea flirts not just with heavy losses, but with one of the greatest catastrophes in human history.”

Trump’s "fire and fury" rhetoric has to be taken seriously as a possible guide to his future behavior, according to Schlosser.

“Trump is the only person in the United States who can order a nuclear strike,” he said. “Let’s not forget leaders do irrational things. Saddam Hussein bluffed and bluffed about his nation’s WMD and it led his nation to destruction.”

Jefferson Morley is AlterNet's Washington correspondent. He is the author of the forthcoming biography The Ghost: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton (St. Martin's Press, October 2017) and Snow-Storm in August: Washington City, Francis Scott Key and the Forgotten Race Riot of 1835.

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