A small part of me delights in President Trump’s hyperbole on North Korea. Take that, “Little Rocket Man.’’ Yeah! “Fire and fury,” “totally destroy” them – let ‘em have it.
But that’s because for years I’ve read the North Korea propaganda machine in English translation as it churns out volumes about how superior they are to the West, how they’ve achieved the perfect society, and that we are all war-mongering primitives whose only goal is to take down the glorious and most benevolent Kim family.
We in the West, the North Korean messages blare, are jealous of the Kims’ glorious achievements, and do not understand that the North merely wants to protect their brethren to the South who of course should be part of the unified Kim cult of all Koreans. George Orwell’s 1984 couldn’t compete with the 24/7 cult of Kim that emanates from the North.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as the North is formally known, deserves to hear some of their own nonsense fired right back at them.
The problem is that while the propaganda machine of the North has no real impact on the world, because its repetition over decades makes it largely meaningless, the over-the-top rhetoric from Donald Trump does. Such words have never been spoken by a U.S. president before. The world notices.
Trump’s words, in threatening Kim Jong Un with Armageddon, and only Armageddon, repeatedly, narrow our options for solving what is a genuine challenge from Kim’s growing nuclear and missile programs, which threaten South Korea, Japan, Guam, and probably my home state of California.
And Trump’s threats encourage Kim to keep on with his brinkmanship. Every time Trump threatens Kim’s total destruction, the North Korean counters with a new threat – to Guam, to test a nuclear weapon in the atmosphere, to shoot down our planes if they get too close.
This Trump-Kim threat and counter-threat is making war more likely, not less. In crisis situations you want the maximum number of options, not the fewest. In diplomacy, and in the threat and use of military force, you want options so you can parry and thrust and always leave yourself, and the other side, an honorable, face-saving out.
Remember the Cuban Missile Crisis. President Kennedy used a bold but measured tactic, a naval blockade, and strong but not bellicose rhetoric, and threats that were veiled. And, in the end he made a deal with the Russians – they took out the Cuban missiles, and we removed U.S. missiles from Turkey, which is near Russia.
Before Trump’s rhetoric, the United States might have used lesser means to push back against Kim Jong Un. Economic sanctions are one method of course, and have been tried, and are tightening. But there are others. We could do a naval blockade, inspecting every ship that goes in and out of North Korean ports, but without killing anyone. Or, the U.S. military could launch small strikes against North Korean targets that would give Kim Jong Un a black eye but not necessarily lead him to all out retaliation against us.
We could destroy a couple of his submarines, for example, in their ports or at sea. U.S. submarines are vastly superior to North Korea’s, they would be easy to pick off. We could destroy the giant, unoccupied Ryugyong Hotel in downtown Pyongyang, a 1,000-foot high pyramidical boondoggle that was never finished. A few cruise missiles could destroy it. The United States could destroy a single building in the middle of his capital city, and probably not kill anyone. How would Kim Jong-un explain that to his people?
Or we could destroy a few of his Navy ships, or destroy his small air force. We probably cannot destroy his nuclear and missile development programs because those sites are hardened or hidden underground. But there are always military options, if the point of them is to brush Kim back, not destroy him.
But Trump’s all-or-nothing rhetoric increases the likelihood that Kim would massively retaliate for any U.S. military action, however minor, for fear such a strike was the beginning of his end. Trump has effectively removed lesser military options from the table. And that’s not in our interest.
Now, admittedly, calibrating these kind of lesser military actions is tough. We don’t exactly know how much of a punch in the nose Kim would tolerate before unleashing his nukes on the world, or how much of a black-eye he might absorb and get the message that he should accede to talks to denuclearize the Korean peninsula.
But we’ll never know, will we? Because Trump’s bullying rhetoric, perhaps a sign of his inexperience or insecurity, has taken such options off the table. That truly is sad.