TSC IntelBrief: Dangerous Rhetoric Over North Korea
Bottom Line Up Front:
• Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile capabilities are now catching up to the bombastic warnings of its leadership.
• President Trump is attempting to match the apocalyptic rhetoric of his counterpart, using language that is unusually aggressive for the president of a nuclear power.
• Attempting to match the bombastic rhetoric of North Korea is fraught with potential risks given the high stakes of misread intentions and posturing.
• Given the intense focus of so many parties, high-level diplomatic efforts and face-saving negotiations need to be initiated promptly.
Two key differences separate the ongoing war of words between North Korea and the U.S. from the many previous incidents of escalating rhetoric. The first is that Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile capabilities are now catching up to the bombastic warnings of its leadership. For the first time, North Korea is believed to have attained the ability to act on some of its threats against the U.S. homeland. Reports suggest that the U.S. intelligence community now believes Pyongyang has mastered the technology to merge a miniaturized nuclear warhead with a long-range intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching the mainland U.S. The development marks one of the last and most critical milestones for North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. The U.S. previously determined that such a milestone was months or years away, allowing time for increased sanctions and diplomatic measures to possibly, though improbably, forestall such a development. In addition to the new threat to the U.S. mainland, the ever-present threat of North Korean missiles striking Japan, South Korea, or perhaps Guam is quite real. As North Korean capabilities increasingly match its bellicose statements, the threats can no longer be dismissed as simple posturing or bluster.
The second difference between the latest crisis and previous ones is that the current U.S. administration is unfamiliar with the unwritten rules of the road that previously dictated much of U.S.-North Korea relations. President Trump prefers to match the apocalyptic rhetoric of his North Korean counterpart, using language that is unusually aggressive for the president of a nuclear power. In an August 8 statement to reporters, President Trump said ‘North Korea best not make any more threats to the U.S. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.’ He then followed up with two August 9 tweets to emphasize that his previous statement should not be considered flowery language, but a warning of a potential U.S. nuclear response to a North Korean threat. In two tweets—which are widely considered official statements by the U.S. president—the president stated: ‘My first order as President was to renovate and modernize our nuclear arsenal. It is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before…Hopefully we will never have to use this power, but there will never be a time that we are not the most powerful nation in the world!’
It is difficult to overstate how far these statements from a sitting U.S. president deviate outside of the norms ascribed to responsible nuclear-powers. There is merit in changing the U.S. approach to the North Korean issue. The previous U.S. strategy has been employed for decades but now must adapt to a new strategic equation as Pyongyang continues to advance its nuclear-capable ballistic delivery capabilities. But matching the bombastic and cataclysmic rhetoric of North Korea is fraught with potential risks given the high stakes of misread intentions and posturing. China has asked both North Korea and the U.S. to tone down the rhetoric, even as the U.S. has expressed disappointment in the lack of Chinese leverage in the crisis. As with other presidential statements, Trump administration officials have tried to reassure allies by subsequently qualifying the president’s bluster, emphasizing that the rhetoric is both a major shift from his predecessors’ alleged naiveté, yet not a careless or improvised escalation in U.S. posture.
In response to President Trump’s warnings, North Korea proffered another, more specific threat, this time against Guam. North Korean state media said plans to fire four Hwasong-12 missiles over Japan and into the waters 30-40 kilometers off of Guam would be ready in mid-August. The risk of misreading intentions amid conflicting stances and incendiary statements is pushing the chance of armed conflict to its highest level since the Korean War. Given the intense focus of so many parties on the immediate threat, active diplomacy at the highest levels is critical to avoiding an outbreak of hostilities between nuclear powers. Yet the U.S. diplomatic corps is a shell of its former self. Many high-level State Department officials have yet to be confirmed, including an ambassador to South Korea, undermining the U.S. ability to employ one of the most effective tools in its arsenal, its diplomatic power.
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