Trump Adds Volatility To A Long History Of North Korean Threats

Threats from Pyongyang are nothing new, but the latest U.S. reaction has some experts worried.

Tensions surrounding North Korea escalated this week after reports surfaced on Tuesday that the country had reached a key milestone in its nuclear program, spurring a heated war of words between Washington and Pyongyang.

President Donald Trump on Tuesday responded to the reports that North Korea had successfully produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead by vowing “fire and fury” if the country threatened the United States.

Despite subsequent criticism, Trump doubled down on Thursday, saying his statement may not have gone far enough and that North Korea “better get its act together.”

North Korea reacted to Trump’s initial remarks in its typical fashion, lashing out with a series of hyperbolic statements on its official KCNA news agency, including repeated claims that the nation’s military is examining plans to launch missiles at the U.S. territory of Guam.

Despite North Korea’s threats, analysts see the country’s rhetoric as a routine part of the country’s decades-long diplomatic standoff with the U.S.. But what has changed in the latest iteration of the crisis is both the presence of Trump as an unpredictable force, as well as the expanded capabilities of North Korea’s nuclear program that give its threats additional weight.

“There’s actually not much new in North Korea’s bombastic threats themselves, since on numerous occasions the regime has threatened to strike the U.S. or its allies, including preemptively,” said Evans Revere, a former American diplomat who has participated in negotiations with North Korea.

“However, as Pyongyang has moved closer to having the ability to deliver on its nuclear and missile threats, the United States is of course compelled to take the bombast more seriously.”

A North Korean state-issued image of leaders Kim Jong Un inspecting a rocket.
A North Korean state-issued image of leaders Kim Jong Un inspecting a rocket.
KCNA KCNA / Reuters

Much of North Korea’s rhetoric this week is a rehash of old warnings. Even the regime’s most aggressive claim of formulating a plan to attack Guam is something that Pyongyang has similarly alluded to in the past, when it issued a statement in 2013 saying that the island territory is within range of its missiles.

The current back and forth cycle of North Korean provocations and U.S. responses goes back to at least the 1990s, when former President Bill Clinton attempted to diplomatically mitigate Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions after at one point considering strikes on the country’s facilities. Former President George W. Bush also struggled with how to handle North Korea, a problem that intensified after the country carried out its first successful nuclear test in 2006.

Since Kim Jong Un took power in 2011 after his father’s death, however, both the missile tests and bellicose rhetoric have ramped up. North Korea has rapidly advanced its capabilities, to the surprise of many arms experts, while at the same time issuing flagrant threats, such as its 2013 vow to turn South Korea’s presidential office into a “sea of fire” if provoked.

Former President Barack Obama, whose administration had no better success than its predecessors in stemming the tide of North Korean nuclear advancements, personally warned Trump during a meeting at the Oval Office in November about the importance of addressing the issue.

But the situation deteriorated further this year after North Korea tested intercontinental ballistic missiles and then successfully miniaturized nuclear warheads, while at the same Trump’s aggressive posturing has stoked fears that he is taking U.S. policy in a troubling new direction.

President Trump’s initial statement was “odd and worrisome, since he suggests that the United States is prepared to retaliate in response to North Korean rhetoric, as opposed to North Korean actions,” Revere said.

“That’s dangerous, especially since North Korea is known for issuing over-the-top threats that they do not actually intend to deliver on.”

Trump's statement vowing "fire and fury" in relation to a North Korean attack has worried experts who warn it is a dangerous departure from past policy.
Trump's statement vowing "fire and fury" in relation to a North Korean attack has worried experts who warn it is a dangerous departure from past policy.
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Many experts and diplomats have highlighted how Trump’s volatility and potential for unplanned outbursts could further destabilize the situation.

“This is a dangerous departure from historical precedent,” William Perry, a former Secretary of Defense under Bill Clinton, said in a statement after Tuesday’s remarks.

“We do not make empty threats, because empty threats weaken our credibility, and weaken the strength of threats that we do intend to carry out.”

Other analysts noted that Trump’s statement sounded similar to the ones that have been coming out of North Korea for years.

“We are quickly moving into uncharted and dangerous territory,” Revere said. “The United States seems to be adopting the North Korean technique of issuing blood-curdling threats that it may or may not be prepared to deliver on.”

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