Americans have grown accustomed to the inflammatory rhetoric of Donald Trump. That doesn’t mean his words fail to provoke a reaction, as the aftermath of Charlottesville and his comments condemning black football players who refuse to stand during the national anthem have made clear. But eight months into his presidency, and many more into his time in the national spotlight, Americans know that it’s not always easy to discern when Trump is posturing and when he’s being serious—which makes it hard to tell just how bad things are.
When it comes to North Korea, things are very bad right now.
Consider the fact that, on Sept. 25, North Korean foreign minister Ri Yong Ho announced that his nation and the US were at war. “For the past couple of days, we had earnestly hoped that the war of words between North Korea and the U.S. would not lead to action,” he said, in remarks translated for NPR. “However, Trump had ultimately declared war again last weekend, by saying regarding our leadership, that he will make it unable to last longer.”
The US has not declared war on North Korea. But it is unsurprising that Ri believes the countries are at war. After all, Trump essentially announced his intent to kill Ri and North Korean president Kim Jong Un two days before. “Just heard Foreign Minister of North Korea speak at U.N. If he echoes thoughts of Little Rocket Man, they won’t be around much longer!” Trump tweeted on Sept. 25. And on Sept. 18, Trump tweeted that “the US will have no choice but to destroy #NoKo.”
Trump is the commander in chief, with unilateral capacity to launch nuclear weapons at North Korea—an idea he has flirted with repeatedly—without needing anyone’s approval. Given his position, it hardly matters whether his comments on North Korea are mere bluster or genuine threats. They will have a real effect either way.
Throughout both his campaign and his presidency, Trump’s bellicosity has been rationalized in a variety of ways: he should be taken “seriously, but not literally”; he was “only kidding”; he was engaging in “locker room talk.” Then there’s the ubiquitous theory that his most outrageous remarks are a “distraction” from the serious, but less juicy, issues of the moment.
But these theories don’t make sense in an era when each distraction is a disaster unto itself. The neo-Nazi rallies distract from the natural disasters that distract from the Russian interference scandals that distract from the attacks on immigrants, and so on. Under Trump, the US faces ceaseless crises that all merit attention.
The “distraction” excuse certainly fails on the foreign front, where those on the receiving end of Trump’s Twitter tirades have no choice but to analyze them through the lens of their own national security. Foreign leaders do not have the luxury of pondering on whether Trump is seriously threatening them or merely attempting to divert attention from a scandal. They must consider whether their population should evacuate, whether their own military should attack, and how to deal with neighboring states, which must similarly reorient their foreign affairs around threats delivered in vague 140-character increments.
This would be a crisis for any country, but that Trump’s threats are aimed at North Korea – a paranoid and insular authoritarian state with rapidly developing military technology and a professed intent of using it – has put the world at the greatest risk of nuclear war in over 50 years.
While every president since the end of the Korean War has had to contend with North Korea as a threat, the US has never had a president whose rhetoric is as inflammatory, destructive, and reckless as Trump’s. We have never had a president as thin-skinned as Trump, who is provoked by the slightest insult and abuses presidential powers – whether pardoning criminal friends or issuing unconstitutional executive orders – purely out of whim and spite. And we have never had a president whose attitude toward nuclear weapons is not deterrence or non-proliferation, but enthusiasm about the destruction they bring. “If we have them, why not use them?” asked Trump in 2016, a comment unsurprising given that his obsession with nukes goes back over thirty years. Now he is in a position to follow through—and no one can stop him.
To be clear, Trump’s threats are not idle. His administration has increased the nuclear weapons budget dramatically, investing in new forms of missiles that former director of the Nuclear Weapons Council Andrew C. Weber deemed “a destabilizing system designed for nuclear war fighting” instead of deterrence. Earlier this month, a Trump administration committee announced they were embracing the development of “mini-nukes”, which nuclear experts fear makes the use of all forms of atomic weaponry more likely.
North Korea, meanwhile, is equally fond of trash-talk, with its leaders describing Trump as a “dotard” who is “mentally deranged” and noting “the dangerous reality that the gambler who grew old using threats, frauds, and all other schemes to acquire a patch of land holds the nuclear button.” While it’s hard to argue with the veracity of that description, North Korea’s proposed course of action – “making our rockets’ visit to the entire US mainland inevitable” – is as destructive and horrifying as Trump’s. They note that they do not care if Trump is even “aware of what is uttered from his mouth.” In other words, it doesn’t matter to North Korea whether or not Trump intends to follow through on his comments, or if he changes his mind later on. The fact that he makes threats at all is enough to trigger the country’s fury, and it is the people of the US who will suffer “consequences far beyond his words.”
What remedy is there for this crisis? Traditionally, one could turn to the State Department in the hopes of a diplomatic intervention. But the Trump administration has purposefully gutted it, and as early as March, secretary of state Rex Tillerson announced that diplomacy with North Korea had “failed.” That such a proclamation was made after less than two months in office is a sign not of actual failure, but of a refusal to even try – a move that seems designed to maximize tension between the two nations. Key positions necessary for diplomacy – like a US ambassador to South Korea – remain unfilled.
Another potential solution is to boot Trump from Twitter, under the logic that threatening nuclear annihilation violates the terms of service. But Twitter refuses to do so, arguing that Trump’s tweets are “newsworthy” and must remain on the site. While Trump’s threats are not limited to Twitter – some of his most inflammatory rhetoric was delivered at the United Nations – the medium is dangerous not only in the ease through which he can quickly deliver careless threats, but in the one-sided format that facilitates confusion and chaos.
Unlike a press conference, where Trump can be confronted with questions or corrected in a chyron, Twitter allows Trump to circulate lies that linger. Given the limited mechanisms of communication with North Korea – no red phone between the two countries exists – and the paranoia of leaders on both sides, it is easy to imagine a misunderstanding of either words or actions leading to armed conflict. And with both Trump and Kim Jong Un willing to employ nuclear weapons, that conflict may escalate into unparalleled destruction. With Trump eagerly threatening annihilation and Kim flaunting his state’s bolstered nuclear capacities, it is naïve to think that rhetoric will be the only weapon they use.