Dueling Hotheads The War of Words that Could Go Nuclear

President Trump's "fire and fury" tirade against the regime of Kim Jong Un has escalated tensions with North Korea. A military conflict with the country would have catastrophic results. Is there still a diplomatic way out of this mess?

A North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile
KCNA / REUTERS

A North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile

By , Juliane von Mittelstaedt, , and


It's always the same ritual in August in South Korea. Not far from the shared border on the 38th parallel, artillery fires at targets supposed to represent North Korean tanks. Helicopters fly at low altitudes, fighter jets thunder through the air and tanks roll across beaches as around 80,000 South Korean soldiers and American troops conduct joint exercises simulating a defense against an attack from the north. The maneuver has already triggered serious crises in the past.

But this year, the nervousness peaked two weeks before the maneuvers. No tanks or troop deployments were required, all it took was these words: "North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen."

Donald Trump fired off these words on Tuesday night, slightly hunched forward, with his arms crossed and chandeliers and golfing plaques in the background, terrifying the rest of the world. It was the sharpest warning yet to the regime in Pyongyang, bordering a declaration of war. By doing so, Trump ignored the unwritten doctrine that a U.S. president doesn't boast of his nuclear arsenal like a teenager. He doesn't seem to care that the weapons are intended as a deterrent and that they do not exist to be used. Had he gone one step further, by threatening to lay Pyongyang to waste, it would have been difficult to distinguish him from Dictator Kim Jong Un.

Even the North Koreans, who do not shy away from making their own abrasive threats, criticized his "nuclear war hysteria" and described the statement as "extremely reckless."

A Verbal Tweet

The statement appears to have been triggered by an article published a shortly before in The Washington Post. It stated that North Korea had produced a miniaturized warhead that could fit inside long-range missiles theoretically capable of reaching the United States. The story was based on an analysis from the Defense Intelligence Agency that the president had presumably been aware of it. Despite that fact, it appears that the president felt he needed to comment on the newspaper report.

The New York Times reported that Trump had neither planned his choice of words in advance nor discussed them with his advisers -- despite the possibility that it could lead to an explosive conflict. The words slipped off the president's tongue at his New Jersey golf club like a verbal tweet, only more dangerous. It was as if he wanted to prove that, even during his vacation, he had the last say in the crisis. He had self-confidently tweeted in January: "North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won't happen!"

Still, the fact that Trump improvised his statements doesn't make them any less dangerous. To the contrary. Trump is actually adding fuel to the fire and, as such, is increasing the risk of a military conflict with North Korea. It's ironic that a country with a tiny economy and a gross domestic product equivalent to only about half the amount Americans spend on their pets is capable of developing nuclear bomb-equipped long-range missiles.

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel criticized the "aggressive language," saying it evoked Kim Jong Un. "There is no military solution to this conflict," Gabriel told DER SPIEGEL. "The risks are so massive, for all parties, especially in Korea of course, but also for the region and the whole world."

Grave Consequences

A war would likely mean the deaths of hundreds of thousands, the destruction of the South Korean capital city of Seoul, possible attacks on U.S. military bases in East Asia and maybe even on American cities. North Korea would be laid to ruins and it would create a shock to the entire global economy.

Given its grave potential consequences, nobody is interested in this war, not even Donald Trump -- at least that's the hope. If things go well, then it may just be a trial of strength between Trump and Kim that ultimately results in negotiations. But the concern is that it could be followed by a series of new and uncontrollable threats and counterthreats that escalate the situation. At some point, one side could see itself forced to attack in order to pre-empt a first strike by the other side.

Seldom has that threat been as great as it is right now, given that nuclear warheads now exist on both sides of the Pacific, representing an existential threat to each end. On the one side, you have in Trump an unrestrained and unfocused Twitter tycoon who has achieved very little during his first 200 days in office. On the other side, you have North Korea's dictator, a man for whom shill war cries are merely a staged show of power.

At the end of July, the North Koreans released a floridly martial warning that they would "pre-emptively annihilate" any country that threatened the regime's "supreme dignity" by "mobilizing all kinds of strike means, including nuclear ones." Following Trump's "fire and fury" tirade, North Korea responded by saying that, if necessary, it might launch four intermediate-range missiles that would land in the sea around Guam, a U.S. Pacific territory that is home to an air base. A sixth nuclear test is also likely soon.

In the past, most U.S. presidents have put up with this kind of saber rattling. But not Trump, who responds to just about every threat with a counterthreat. On Wednesday, he just kept going, tweeting: "My first order as President" was to renovate and modernize America's nuclear arsenal. "It is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before," he wrote, despite this being untrue. He then tweeted: "Hopefully we will never have to use this power," adding, "But there will never be a time that we are not the most powerful nation in the world!"

Trump: 'Wasn't Tough Enough'

When asked by journalists on Thursday if he had gone too far with his statement, Trump countered, "maybe that statement wasn't tough enough."

When asked what could be tougher than "fire and fury," he responded: "Well you'll see. You'll see."

Trump was then asked if he was considering a preemptive strike, to which he replied, "We don't talk about that."

But he followed that by saying, "North Korea better get their act together or they are going to be in trouble like few nations have ever been in trouble."

Many had hoped that the recent appointment of John Kelly as the new chief of staff might help bring a little bit of calm and order to the White House, but this week's comments show that the president cannot be reined in. Together with National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis, former general Kelly is considered to be one of the few levelheaded members of Trump's close team. Mattis and Kelly already agreed months ago that one of them would always be in the United States in order to monitor the president's orders and decisions.

Donald Trump gave his "fire and fury" tirade on Tuesday.
EVAN VUCCI / AP

Donald Trump gave his "fire and fury" tirade on Tuesday.

Otherwise, there are few people capable of influencing Trump's North Korea policies. Many positions remain vacant at the State Department and there is a lack of experts who could develop a strategy for North Korea. These days, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is essentially a battery-powered robot vacuum cleaner who tidies things up without making much noise. It was Tillerson himself who very suddenly announced in March that, "The policy of strategic patience has ended." But he was more conciliatory a few days ago, saying that Washington does not seek regime change in North Korea.

After Trump's fire and fury tirade, he seemed incapable of coming up with something better than saying there was no reason to worry about the president's statement and that the "American people should sleep well at night."

Fuel on the Fire

It is a sign of the chaos in Washington that the defense secretary, of all people, escalated the situation on Wednesday by warning North Korea it must "cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and destruction of its people."

But how great is the threat posed by North Korea?

The U.S. estimates that Kim now has up to 60 nuclear weapons, and he is intervening personally to ensure his military technology specialists are working fast. "He appears to be using a carrot and stick approach," says Lee Ho Ryung of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul. In 2016, the dictator had himself photographed in front of a miniaturized warhead for the first time. At the time, many experts wondered if the silver ball might be a fake, but few still doubt its authenticity today.

The miniaturized warheads mark a breakthrough for the country -- one that military experts had initially thought was only possible in two years' time. It remains unclear whether North Korea has the capabilities or the precision necessary to strike targets in the U.S.

Analysis of July's intercontinental-ballistic-missile test suggested that the missile had burned up as it fell through the Earth's atmosphere. For that reason, Robert Litwak of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington believes Kim's missile tests create a "new urgency" in the debate over the nuclear program, which he describes as Kim's "Manhattan Project," but that it will still take another year of two until Pyongyang will have nuclear-tipped missiles capable of striking targets thousands of kilometers away. Still, experts have often gotten things wrong in the past and Pyongyang appears to be making rapid progress.

A 'Political' Weapon

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un can boast that he has filfilled his family's legacy of seeking to create a nuclear weapon.
KCNA / REUTERS

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un can boast that he has filfilled his family's legacy of seeking to create a nuclear weapon.

North Korea's state propaganda machine has already hailed the young leader as a military commander who has won numerous battles. He can already boast that he has fulfilled the legacy of his grandfather Kim Il Sung and his father Kim Jong Il, that he has protected the Stalinist dynasty from intervention by a major power thanks to the possession of nuclear weapons. Natural disasters, famines and ever-stronger sanctions did nothing to dissuade the Kims from achieving their goal. Kim Jong Un's most important strategic goal now may be recognition as a nuclear power -- possibly through the kind of compromise the U.S. reached with India.

"(North Korea) is developing its nuclear weapon for a political reason," concurs Ra Jong Yil, who is also the former deputy director of the South Korean intelligence service. He doesn't believe that Kim would actually use his arsenal. In the longer term, he argues, his goal is for the U.S. to withdraw its military from South Korea, an assessment shared in Japan. Sources in Japan's General Army Staff do not believe Kim to be suicidal enough to risk his power through a retaliatory strike against the United States.

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