President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un escalated months of tensions this week, trading fierce threats and pointed insults like “rocket man” and “dotard” in high-profile addresses in two continents.
The increasingly personal attacks between both leaders have have caused alarm among some nuclear weapons and foreign policy experts concerned the pair are edging dangerously closer to an actual war.
“Kim Jong Un’s response to Trump’s speech yesterday demonstrates that the cycle of the threats and counter-threats has entered an even more dangerous phase,” Kingston Reif, director of disarmament and threat reduction policy for the Arms Control Association, said to HuffPost.
New threats and sanctions
Trump kicked off the week with a verbal attack against the rogue nation on Tuesday during his first address to the United Nations General Assembly. Trump called Kim a “rocket man ... on a suicide mission” and threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea if the country carried out threats of military action against the U.S. or its allies.
Hours after the U.S. imposed new sanctions Thursday aimed at crippling North Korea’s nuclear missile program, Kim responded in a rare public speech, warning Trump that he would “pay dearly” for his remarks at the U.N. “I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged U.S. dotard with fire,” Kim said of Trump. “Action is the best option in treating the dotard who, hard of hearing, is uttering only what he wanted to say,” he continued, according to a translation of his statement. Hours later, North Korea’s foreign minister threatened to test a hydrogen bomb somewhere in the Pacific.
Trying to ‘out Kim Jong Un’ Kim Jong Un is not a winning strategy." Kingston Reif, director of disarmament and threat reduction policy for the Arms Control Association
The remarks from both leaders add tremendous tension to an already perilous standoff between the two nations, warned several experts who spoke to HuffPost. Over the years, the U.S. has attempted to prevent the growth of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and development of missile technology at various times using sanctions, diplomacy and the threat of military action. But nothing has fully obstructed the nation’s advancements.
“Trying to ‘out Kim Jong Un’ Kim Jong Un is not a winning strategy. Pressure and threats alone won’t convince North Korea to change course,” Reif said.
“We have two volatile leaders with nuclear weapons making it personal and further digging in with their reckless rhetoric. The two sides need to seek off-ramps to reduce tensions immediately. This should include direct dialogue.”
The escalating rhetoric follows recent reports that North Korea has developed a small nuclear warhead to fit atop one of its long-range missiles ― a major advancement for the country’s nuclear program. The reports also come on the heels of several recent successful test-launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles that could reach the U.S.
For decades, the Kim dynasty has threatened to rain down its own “fire” against its enemies, remarks that are seen as merely bluster. But since Kim Jong Un succeeded his father Kim Jong Il, North Korea has made meaningful strides in the advancement of its military agenda. The country conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test earlier this month, claiming it had detonated a hydrogen bomb designed to be carried on an intercontinental ballistic missile. Experts believe it was approximately 17 times as strong as the bomb used to devastate the Japanese city of Hiroshima during World War II. Less than two weeks later, the North also launched a missile over the Japanese mainland, the second time it had done so.
In response to North Korea’s actions, the U.N. Security Council passed sanctions on the country and Trump expanded the sanctions this week, targeting financial institutions that conduct business with Pyongyang.
As capabilities increase, so do the stakes
As North Korea steadily works toward a nuclear-armed ICBM, the stakes have risen. According to Bruce Blair, a nuclear safety expert at Princeton University, the technical challenge for the U.S. to neutralize a North Korean missile is tremendously high.
Among the options the U.S. military has is to attempt to shoot down such a missile, but the odds of success using those defense systems are low, Blair said. Alternatively, he explained, military forces could also attempt to strike the missile on its pad before launch. But Blair warned these options carry “obvious risks of escalation to conventional or nuclear conflict” with catastrophic consequences.
That’s why, he says, every diplomatic means at both nations’ disposal “ought to be engaged right now to ward off this impending disaster.”
“[T]he DPRK threat to fire a nuclear-armed missile is an act of profound and risky brinksmanship that must be dialed back to zero,” Blair said.
John Mecklin, editor-in-chief of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, echoed the analysis that this is a standoff neither side can win through military action.
“This is not a public relations game; hundreds of thousands and possibly millions of lives hang in the balance,” Mecklin said. “Both sides have now had an overheated rhetorical moment. It is time to call in the professional diplomats, and to begin talking.”
In January, Mecklin’s group, which created the so-called “Doomsday Clock” ― a symbolic representation of humanity’s proximity to apocalyptic destruction ― moved the clock’s minute hand 30 seconds closer to midnight, the hour symbolizing global catastrophe. The minute hand is now at 2.5 minutes to midnight, closer than it has been since 1953, when it hit 2 minutes after the U.S. and the Soviet Union tested hydrogen bombs. Trump’s comments on nuclear arms and climate issues were among the factors the group took into consideration in advancing the clock this year.
Among the factors complicating an effective diplomatic response are Trump’s failure to appoint key diplomatic and ambassadorial posts ― including top nuclear positions at the State Department and even the ambassador to South Korea, said Alexandra Bell, senior policy director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. “Diplomacy must always be the first pitch, but it’s not an option if no one is there to throw the ball,” Bell said.
With thousands of warheads at its disposal, the office of the United States presidency is now a “nuclear monarchy,” Blair explained in a chilling op-ed last year. The commander in chief has “virtually unlimited power to rain down nuclear weapons on any adversarial regime and country at any time,” which could extinguish “hundreds of millions of lives” in just a few hours, he wrote. Blair also questioned whether Trump has the temperament to handle the proverbial 3 a.m. phone call giving notice that a nuclear strike is imminent. A president would have just minutes to decide how to respond to a missile launch from one of various adversaries around the globe.
Trump has shown a seemingly blasé attitude toward the idea of nuclear engagement. As a candidate, he refused to rule out using tactical nuclear weapons in the war against the self-described Islamic State, and he has appeared to be cavalier about the use of nuclear weaponry in general, going so far as to ask why the U.S. has nuclear weapons if it can’t use them.
That’s exactly why MIT linguistics professor emeritus Noam Chomsky says he finds Trump’s rhetoric “extremely dangerous.”
“I suppose it is idle and naive to recall that the U.S. is bound by treaty to refrain ‘from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state,’” Chomsky told HuffPost, citing U.N. Charter Article 2, Subsection 4, a provision Chomsky says “was cast into the waste basket long ago, without notable objections.”
“Much of the world is appalled that at the General Assembly of all places, the leader of the most powerful state in world history should deliver a hysterical rant in which he threatens to murder 25 million people,” Chomsky added. “You might ask whether there is a comparable situation the world has faced before.”
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