Today, President Trump promised North Korea a “fire and fury like the world has never seen” if it continues to threaten the United States. His remark came on the heels of a news article that cited an intelligence assessment claiming Pyongyang had successfully miniaturized a nuclear warhead. Miniaturization is a critical step toward being able to mount such a device onto a missile — so, if the report is true, it’s certainly worthy of due concern by those charged with our national defense.
But a little self-discipline by the commander in chief and some perspective are in order.
President Trump’s “fiery” rhetoric only escalates the tension further. And it plays right into Kim Jong Un’s hands. Kim’s argument — ridiculous as it sounds — is that North Korea needs nukes to ensure the regime’s survival and defend it against the United States, a nation he remains convinced is out to unseat him.
Consider how North Korea’s foreign minister reacted to the UN Security Council resolutions yesterday: “We will, under no circumstances, put the nukes and ballistic rockets on the negotiating table,” Mr. Ri said in a statement. “Neither shall we flinch even an inch from the road to bolstering up the nuclear forces chosen by ourselves unless the hostile policy and nuclear threat of the US against the DPRK are fundamentally eliminated.”
For Kim, it’s all about the United States — and only the United States. Threats of overwhelming force by our President, while perhaps satisfying in the moment, only bolsters that propaganda and lends it credibility.
And all of this from an assessment which CNN sources say is not supported by the entire intelligence community — it came from a leak. That doesn’t diminish the gravity of it, but it sure makes one wonder who in the hell thought it was a good idea.
Disclosing classified conclusions is against the law — but, more critically, doing so when those conclusions are not fully vetted could also prompt reactions from Pyongyang that only make the situation more volatile.
We’re already witnessing the repercussions of Trump’s threat, as the North Korean military is now “carefully examining” plans to strike Guam, the US territory that is home to more than 160,000 American citizens.
Does President Trump’s admonition about continued threats from Pyongyang represent a red line the North Koreans just crossed? It is unclear whether the North Koreans can actually hit Guam with any precision or lethality, but I suspect the people of that tiny island will be waking up worried nonetheless.
Trump will also no doubt cause a fair bit of angst in Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing. The South Koreans obviously expect us to meet our mutual defense treaty requirements, but they just elected to office a new administration that desires to find a peaceful solution to the crisis, indeed direct talks. They stand more to lose by war on the peninsula than anyone else, and by “lose” we’re talking potentially millions of lives.
Our Japanese allies likewise are in the crosshairs now. And the Chinese, for all their recalcitrance to put pressure on Pyongyang, just voted on some of the toughest sanctions ever enacted against Kim’s regime and could be forgiven for thinking the United States was willing to continue to pursue diplomatic pressure.
True, Beijing has not done enough to change Kim’s calculus and their implementation of sanctions in the past has been spotty, but in the wake of a truly significant win in the UN — one that represented a galvanized international community against an increasingly isolated North — Trump actually risks isolating the United States instead.
Finally, the President is only making it that much harder for his national security team to continue to work on the problem with the same thoughtful, measured and deliberate approach they have hitherto been taking. It was just a week ago that Secretary of State Tillerson made clear that the United States: 1) was not seeking regime change, 2) did not consider North Korea an enemy, and 3) did not rule out direct talks at some point. Tillerson’s pursuit of this approach just became a lot more difficult, and the President just narrowed his own decision space.
Putting all that aside for a moment, we have long known and surmised that Pyongyang was striving for a nuclear-capable ICBM. Everything they have said and done in the last couple years has reinforced this thesis. As the head of the US Pacific Command, Navy Adm. Harry Harris, recently said of Kim Jong Un, “I take him at his word. I must assume his claims are true — I know his aspirations certainly are.”
So, obviously, if we assume Kim Jong Un is serious — and we do — we must be prepared to defend ourselves and our allies. And we are. As Adm. Harris made clear, our military forces are ready to “fight tonight.” But we must also recognize that, even if true, this new assessment does not mean Pyongyang can effectively deploy a nuclear-tipped missile right now.
While miniaturization is critical, it does not in and of itself speak to the ability to mount the warhead on a missile, precisely target that missile, or ensure the warhead can even survive reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere.
We must take the threat seriously, to be sure. Kim Jong Un has been nothing if not consistent in his desire to achieve this capability. But we don’t need to go digging bunkers in our backyards just yet.
There is still time for diplomacy, still room for international pressure — if only the President would let his team continue that vital work.