When Words Risk Provoking War

Even if threatening North Korea with “fire and fury” wasn’t intended as an ultimatum, its consequences could be serious.

Donald Trump
President Trump speaks about North Korea during an opioid-related briefing at his golf estate in Bedminster, New Jersey, on August 8, 2017.  (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

In 1949, the United States withdrew its military forces from the Korean Peninsula. Secretary of State Dean Acheson then gave an important speech defining American national-security interests—which notably excluded Korea. Today, few people recall the military retrenchment by the Truman administration, which sent a powerful signal that America was narrowing its scope of action. It’s not the drawing down of U.S. forces but rather Acheson’s speech that is commonly cited as the signal of American abandonment of South Korea. Words matter: Acheson didn’t cause the Korean war, but his words are remembered as the provocation.

Words especially matter between societies that poorly understand each other’s motivations and intentions, as do North Korea and the U.S. We can afford to be sloppy in our formulations among friends, where cultural similarity or exposure give context, but neither of those circumstances pertain with North Korea. So whether or not President Trump intended an ultimatum with his statement on Tuesday that North Korea “best not make any more threats to the United States” lest it face “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” it may have serious consequences. North Korea afterward threatened to fire missiles toward Guam. The next move falls to the U.S.

The are plenty of reasons to worry about this North Korean government armed with nuclear weapons: Its leader gleefully maps attacks on the U.S., has endured considerable economic hardship to continue advancing North Korea’s nuclear program, seems comfortable taking outsized risks to showcase advancements in nuclear and missile programs, provokes military incidents with South Korea, and kidnaps and tortures citizens of other countries. Kim Jong Un now has at least 20 nuclear weapons and, the Defense Intelligence Agency reportedly believes, the ability to attack the United States with them. Whether killing family and military leaders with anti-aircraft guns signals the strength of his hold on the country or a brittle and weakening grip, I cannot ascertain. But I do have the sense that Kim Jong Un is the kind of leader who would want to fire off all his weaponry and go out in a blaze of glory if he believed he were being overthrown in a coup d’état or military attack by the United States.

The U.S. has military forces of great prowess that probably could, with an extended campaign, destroy North Korea’s nuclear weapons and infrastructure before they could be used against the U.S. or its allies. If the U.S. began the war—if it struck first—it might even be able to destroy the 8,000-10,000 North Korean artillery pieces in the space of a couple of hours, which would be a military feat of extraordinary virtuosity. But it would come at a heavy cost: tens and probably hundreds of thousands of South Koreans dead, hard fighting by the U.S. and its allies to subdue the North Korean army, upending of global commerce and the Asian geopolitical order, and the moral consequences of having chosen war rather than having risked becoming the victim of it.

All this suggests that the soundest policy is dialing down the crisis atmosphere, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has attempted to do, telling Americans that they “should sleep well at night” despite the North Korean threat. But Tillerson’s mollifying tone is once again being drowned out by the president. He is also being undercut by National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, who said that the threat is “impossible to overstate” and emphasized that the president of the United States is responsible for American lives, not South Korean ones.

Stock markets in the U.S., Asia, and Europe unsurprisingly registered their worry in retreat. What is surprising is how little alarm has been expressed so far by the governments of South Korea, Japan, and China. This suggests that governments are beginning to ignore the president’s statements. Disbelief of the president may be a stabilizing factor for foreign governments, but as Eliot Cohen points out, it will be a major liability if the president needs to persuade the American people to go to war against North Korea.