What happens when two relatively new leaders, both desperate to project strength to their supporters at home, and unskilled in nuanced foreign policy, go head-to-head? Watch US president Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un over the coming days to find out.
Trump took to Twitter on Tuesday morning to taunt the North Korean government, saying it was “looking for trouble” and threatening to “solve the problem” (presumably of North Korea’s missile testing) without China. The written attack came after a US aircraft carrier was diverted to the region over the weekend, ahead of the April 15 birthday of North Korea’s founding father, traditionally a time to show off military might.
The North Korean government, meanwhile, says it is ready for a fight. “If the US dares opt for a military action, crying out for ‘pre-emptive attack’ … the DPRK is ready to react to any mode of war desired by the US,” a North Korean foreign ministry spokesman said on Tuesday.
Trump kept going later Tuesday, saying in an interview with Fox Business the US was sending “an armada” to the region to challenge Kim that was “very powerful,” and hinting that submarines might be involved too.
North Korea, a politically isolated dictatorship of 25 million people, has a history of belligerent statements and sometimes fatal skirmishes with neighboring South Korea. The world became used to provocations from North Korea in decades past, but in recent years the threats have increasingly been backed by alarming advances in weapons capabilities that threaten other nations as well.
“We now have both sides playing at brinksmanship.” Introducing Trump’s foreign policy doctrine of provocative statements (sometimes not followed up on) to the already unstable situation is worrisome, foreign policy experts say. “We now have both sides playing at brinksmanship,” said Ken E. Gause, director of the international affairs group at CNA, a defense think tank in Washington, DC. The situation is “very precarious and very concerning.”
If Trump’s provocative statements are part of a larger, multi-step plan to stabilize and de-nuclearize North Korea, then that is “brilliant,” Gause said. But “if it is just haphazard, it is pretty dangerous.”
“The default response when North Korea is challenged is to turn up the volume,” said Scott Snyder, the senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. And because North Korea’s weapons capability is improving all the time, “we’re at a threshold here where we have to take them seriously,” he said.
The US and the DPRK don’t maintain formal diplomatic contact, Snyder notes, so communication between the two countries may be mostly the statements the two leaders have issued that are being reported by the media.
Both leaders have proven unpredictable, although to extremely different degrees. After taking power in late 2011, Kim Jong-un eliminated some of the checks on his power, including by getting rid of strong advisers by executing them. Trump’s advisers, meanwhile, have seemed incapable of forcing him to tone down his threats to foreign leaders, especially on Twitter.
As North Korea develops more offensive capabilities, the US and its allies have surrounded the country with more advanced weapons and defense systems—a situation that could lead to a short and brutal war on the Korean peninsula, as Quartz wrote earlier this week.
South Korea, in particular Seoul, is likely to bear the brunt of any attacks. Citizens there are already concerned, and South Korea’s foreign policy ministry said Tuesday that the US has promised to not take any new actions without consulting South Korea.
At the very least, a battle of words between the US and North Korea will escalate before it stops, said Eric Altbach, a senior vice president with Albright Stonebridge Group, a consulting firm. The North Koreans “are quite likely to respond with even more colorful language about the United States and Donald Trump, personally.”
The question, of course, is whether the exchange of barbs becomes a tragic exchange of bombs.