Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia nonproliferation program, Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey
I think it’s important to understand why these remarks are so dangerous. I keep seeing people defending Trump, saying, “Who cares of we hurt Kim Jong Un’s feelings?” That totally misses the point.
Trump’s remarks make two mistakes. First, they actively aid North Korea’s propaganda because a lot of people in Japan and South Korea will conclude that Trump is as much the problem as Kim. Americans seldom pay attention to politics in allied countries, but they can be tremendously important.
Second, Trump is basically creating audience costs for Kim to back down. If you dare Kim, it creates pressure for him to respond with his own provocation. The last time we saw the North Koreans let a Trump threat pass, it was the comment about the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test not happening. In hindsight, it’s clear North Korea didn’t forget; it just took them time to be ready.
Trump acting like a fool isn’t the end of the world — at least he didn’t pull the nuclear codes out of his jacket and wave them around — but it does make our North Korea policy incrementally more difficult.
Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy, Arms Control Association
First, the statement that “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission” is another alarming data point suggesting that the president does not believe Kim is rational or can be deterred. This follows on McMaster claiming last month that “classical deterrence theory” doesn’t apply to North Korea.
Never mind that there is no good reason to believe that North Korea can’t be deterred and contained, though of course this approach won’t be easy or risk-free. If the administration truly believes that North Korea can’t be deterred and that a nuclear-armed ICBM is unacceptable, then preventive military action becomes much more likely.
Second, Trump’s threatening and bombastic rhetoric will only serve to reinforce the view in Pyongyang that it must retain and augment its nuclear capabilities to prevent a US attack. It will also likely make it easier for North Korea to make this case to China. Trying to “out-Kim Jong Un” Kim Jong Un is not a winning strategy.
Third, Trump missed an important opportunity to appeal to the international community to better implement existing sanctions and support efforts for a realistic, negotiated solution. Pressure and threats alone won’t convince North Korea to change course. As President John F. Kennedy said following the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis: “Above all, while defending our own vital interests, nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to the choice of either a humiliating defeat or a nuclear war.”
Fourth, in trashing the Iran deal and threatening to unravel it, not only is Trump courting a second major nonproliferation crisis but he is putting a negotiated solution to reduce the North Korean threat even further out of reach. If Trump unravels the deal, Kim will understandably conclude that the United States can’t be counted on to live up any agreement he might strike with it.
Vipin Narang, associate professor of political science, MIT
A lot is being made [about] the “totally destroy” language, but it followed “if [the US] is forced to defend itself or its allies” — so it was still a retaliatory threat. The concern is that the standard formulation “effective and overwhelming” is a bit more calibrated and allows for flexibility in response.
To threaten to “totally destroy” North Korea in retaliation for behavior we find unacceptable seems to imply a devastating nuclear response. But we don’t know, and that’s the problem.
North Korea, the US, and its allies understand what “effective and overwhelming” means. We are left to guess if there is daylight between that and “totally destroy.” Maybe there is, maybe there isn’t. But that ambiguity does not do much to enhance deterrence, which requires clarity and consistency.
Melissa Hanham, senior research associate in the East Asia nonproliferation program, Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey