The Real Threat: Changing US Rhetoric on North Korea

Recently, we’ve seen a lot of overly dramatic coverage of the threat from North Korea to the United States mainland. We wanted to address this briefly and talk about what the actual threat is to US national security and the regional security of Northeast Asia, particularly our treaty allies Japan and South Korea. Throughout the past two decades, North Korea has made various threats of devastation to the United States and our allies as relations have soured. Below are a sprinkling of a few such aggressive posturings:

  • March 2001: Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) says North Korea threatens to “take thousand-fold revenge” on the US “and its black-hearted intention to torpedo the dialogue between north and south,” as well as saying that Pyongyang was “fully prepared for both dialogue and war”
  • April 2005: North Korean official declares that the state may give nuclear weapons to terrorists if “the United States drives us into a corner”
  • February 2011: In response to US – South Korea joint military exercises, North Korea threatens to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire”

As can be seen, the North Koreans are experts at bluster and threats, and only rarely have those ephemeral warnings turned into concrete actions. Twice during the Obama administration, both during the tumultuous year of 2010, did the North Koreans physically attack the South. Today, that would almost definitely lead to either a declared war by the United States, or a retaliatory action on the part of the US. In 2010, neither of those things happened. Let’s take a look at the responses from the Obama administration to each of those 2010 attacks.

The first attack was the sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean Navy vessel, which killed 46 sailors. The attack was not immediately deemed an act of war by the North, and it took at least a month to officially determine it was action by the North which sunk the ship. The response by the Obama White House was measured:

The United States strongly condemns the act of aggression that led to their deaths…This act of aggression is one more instance of North Korea’s unacceptable behavior and defiance of international law…North Korea must understand that belligerence towards its neighbors and defiance of the international community are signs of weakness, not strength.

The second event was the shelling of a South Korean island by the North, which was immediately apparent upon the island’s being attacked. The response by the Obama administration was quick and harsh, yet still was not inflammatory:

The United States strongly condemns this attack and calls on North Korea to halt its belligerent action and to fully abide by the terms of the Armistice Agreement. The United States is firmly committed to the defense of our ally, the Republic of Korea, and to the maintenance of regional peace and stability.

Keep in mind that these statements were released after actual attacks on a treaty ally which we are obligated to defend militarily.

So far in 2017, we have seen a rapid escalation of tensions between the US and North Korea, largely due to the extreme rhetoric of one party: the American President. As we have seen, the North Korean threats and language have not changed over time; they have been and will continue to be threatening to the United States and our allies, yet will almost always refrain from acting on those threats. The variable that has changed in this equation, and for the worse, is the heated rhetoric of our President, Donald Trump. Compared to the extremely careful tone the Obama administration took during the most critical and tense situations on the Korean peninsula in decades, if not since the Armistice, the tone of President Trump is outright dangerous for the security situation in Northeast Asia. Here’s just a brief sample of what President Trump has spouted during his short term in office so far:

“The US has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend ourselves or our allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea…Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.”

Donald Trump speech at United Nations General Assembly, September 19, 2017

“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. [Kim Jong-Un] has been very threatening beyond a normal state, and as I said, they will be met with fire and fury, and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.”

Donald Trump speaking in Bedminster, NJ, August 8, 2017

Based on these and countless other reckless and vitriolic statements, it is clear that the only change in language is on the side of the United States. This is the clear and present danger facing Northeast Asia and the tens of thousands of American soldiers, sailors, and airmen stationed there, not the rogue regime of Kim Jong-Un. If the American President doesn’t ratchet down his rhetoric, he will goad the North Koreans into a legitimate conflagration, which is avoidable given the history of the region (one-sided threats have not led to war in 50+ years). Mr. President, what good is making these threats doing? It isn’t forcing the North to the bargaining table and it isn’t stopping them from testing ballistic missiles or nuclear weapons. So why incite potential conflict?

The answer is simple: the man can’t help himself.

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