Yesterday, North Korea announced that it considered President Trump’s statements on twitter as a declaration of war. Ri Yong-ho, North Korea’s foreign minister, specifically referred to a threat from the president that “they wouldn’t be around for much longer” if North Korea’s rhetoric continues.
North Korea and President Trump have been trading barbs and threats back and forth for the last several weeks, culminating in the UN General Assembly, where Trump used the apparently derogatory nickname Rocket Man to describe Kim Jong Un, and the North Koreans described Trump’s fiery speech behavior as “the barking of dogs”.
In reply to Trump’s threats, Ri’s response referred to specific countermeasures they might use against American planes: ”Since the United States declared war on our country, we will have every right to make countermeasures, including the right to shoot down United States strategic bombers even when they are not inside the airspace border of our country. The question of who won’t be around much longer will be answered then”. That is a reference to the B-1 Bombers launched on Saturday to patrol airspace east of North Korea.
The ever-present worry is that one side or the other will miscalculate a response, leading to uncontrolled escalation. Hopefully, the fiery rhetoric remains a war of words, but the unpredictability and opaque nature of the thought processes of both leaders leads to a concern that by the time anyone realizes a mistake has been made, or a line has been crossed, it will be too late.
Overcoming natural reticence to offer Trump the benefit of the doubt, this “power” is presumably not intended to be unleashed (unzipped?) merely in response to Un’s repeated threats, but his choice of language unavoidably raises the specter of a nuclear strike by US forces. If this were any other president it would probably be written off as a gaffe, but given both Trump’s impulsiveness and his reported inability during the 2016 campaign to grasp why nuclear weapon use is undesirable, it is unlikely to be glossed over without further clarification by the administration.
It’s appears that Trump’s comments have already inflamed tensions. North Korea very quickly threatened to attack Guam, a US territory (about midway between Japan and Australia) which houses a number of military installations and has a population of nearly 175,000. Unfortunately, the top of the State Department has been largely unmanned since the current administration took power, so the institutional leadership necessary to implement even a radically aggressive stance of the sort Trump apparently desires simply does not exist. It would appear he is steering the ship of state into a storm he does not have the crew to handle.