During his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Donald Trump spent several minutes speaking about two men who suffered horrifically in North Korea. Trump told the well-known, tragic story of Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia student arrested in January 2016 in North Korea for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster. Not long after Pyongyang sentenced him to 15 years of hard labor, Warmbier fell into a coma; he died in the United States on June 19, 2017, six days after North Korea released him. “You are powerful witnesses to a menace that threatens our world,” Trump said to the nation and to Warmbier’s family, who sat in the audience. Trump then introduced 34-year-old North Korean Ji Seong Ho, who survived torture, starvation, and a crippling train accident before defecting in 2006. He is a “witness to the ominous nature of this regime,” Trump said.
Trump cited Warmbier and Ji to personalize Pyongyang’s iniquities, and, possibly, plant the emotional seeds for a military strike against North Korea. And yet, Ji and Warmbier’s experiences represent radically different facets of the regime: how it treats its own citizens, versus how it treats Americans. Ji’s experience in North Korea, while extraordinary, is not singular. His grandmother starved to death in the mid-90s, amid a famine that killed thousands, if not millions. Authorities tortured Ji after he returned from a trip to China, just as they’ve tortured thousands of his compatriots, including many of the more than 100,000 people Amnesty International estimates languish in four of North Korea’s known political prison camps.
Unlike Ji’s experience, Warmbier’s is unique, and not representative. Of the thousands of Americans who have visited North Korea since the death of the country’s longtime leader Kim Il Sung in 1994, Warmbier is the only one known to have died from injuries suffered there. Americans who visit North Korea—I’ve spoken to dozens of them over the last decade, and have been there twice myself—experience a level of luxury unimaginable to many North Koreans. They eat to satiation, sleep in air-conditioned hotels, and face very little risk of molestation from the North Korean secret service.
The same dichotomy exists on the international stage as well. Pyongyang poses an existential threat to the psychological, spiritual, emotional, and physical health of its citizens, and to the North Korean nation. But despite what Kim may be intending with his bombastic rhetoric, his regime poses a surprisingly small threat to the United States. That’s not what you’ll hear from Trump, however. “We need only look at the depraved character of the North Korean regime to understand the nature of the nuclear threat it could pose to America and our allies,” he said in his address last night. But such declarations conflate the threat Pyongyang poses to its own people with the threat it poses to Americans. Trump “makes the fundamental mistake of equating brutal regimes with undeterrable regimes,” tweeted Vipin Narang, a nuclear proliferation expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “The two have nothing to do with each other.” While the United States has no good options on North Korea, there are many steps it can take that are smarter, safer, and more beneficial to its interests than military action. These include diplomacy, burden-sharing with China, or even Barack Obama’s studiously inactive “strategic patience” approach.
What, then, is the threat that North Korea poses to the United States? It’s not that it will attack the United States or kill visiting Americans. It is that Washington will hype the Pyongyang menace to such a degree that Americans will come to believe North Korea actually does pose an existential threat to the United States, and feel compelled to act accordingly, risking the lives of millions of people in the first great war of the 21st century.
That, sadly, seems to be the direction America is heading. In the summer of 2017, following the death of the 22-year-old Warmbier, the State Department banned U.S. passport holders from visiting the country without first receiving special permission. Besides encouraging Americans to believe North Korea is a dangerous place to visit, that move also ended one of the few channels Americans had for interacting with actual North Koreans. One tourist I spoke with who joined Warmbier on his fateful tour, and who asked to remain anonymous so that he could speak frankly, described how the experience humanized North Koreans for him, and vice versa. These encounters are maybe the only “kind of representation these people get of Americans that is not this cartoonish devil caricature,” he told me.
In August, after the Kim regime threatened to retaliate against America for new UN sanctions against the country, Trump warned that North Korea “will be met with fire, fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.” The United States would have been better off if Trump ignored its comments: Pyongyang often pretends it will respond with aggression to situations it winds up ignoring. Pyongyang, for example, has considered so many things to be a “declaration of war” over the last two decades that in 2006, The Onion satirized the country’s then-leader with the headline “Kim Jong Il Interprets Sunrise as Act of War.”
On January 10, the State Department took things even further. Americans who receive permission to visit North Korea should “draft a will and designate appropriate insurance beneficiaries and/or power of attorney,” it wrote on its travel warnings website. And those Americans, State continued—in hyperbolic language it uses nowhere else on its website—should “discuss a plan with loved ones regarding care/custody of children, pets, property, belongings, non-liquid assets (collections, artworks, etc.), funeral wishes, etc.” Pyongyang, where surveillance is pervasive, is far safer for Americans than, say, Caracas. Venezuela’s capital, by some measures, has the highest murder rate in the world. And yet, the State Department merely suggests Americans “reconsider” travel to Venezuela.
Three days later on January 13—in an event that, for many Americans, underscored the threat posed by North Korea—the state of Hawaii’s emergency alert system mistakenly warned of a “ballistic missile threat” to the islands. Many people assumed the non-existent missile came from Pyongyang. “The whole state was terrified,” Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz said.
In a further sign of how close this administration may be to war, on January 30, The Washington Post reported that the White House no longer wanted the respected and hawkish Korea hand Victor D. Cha to serve as its ambassador to South Korea. Why? In part because he isn’t hawkish enough: Cha disagreed with the White House’s plan to launch a limited strike on North Korea to deter it from its nuclear weapons program.
And yet, the odds of North Korea launching a preemptive strike on the United States remain vanishingly slim. If North Korea “launched an unprovoked nuclear strike against the United States,” said Kingston Reif, the director for Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy at the nonpartisan Arms Control Association, “that would be suicide” for them. The very rare exception would be if Pyongyang feared, even with its nuclear weapons, that the United States posed an existential threat. If North Korea believed “a U.S. attack is imminent, either due to accurate intelligence or miscalculation,” it might use nuclear weapons first “out of fear that its forces won’t last long against the combined might” of the United States and South Korea, Reif said.
Through its escalating public threats, and by conflating Warmbier’s experience with that of North Koreans like Ji, the Trump administration and many in congress are creating a cartoonish image of Pyongyang as a suicidal rogue state bent on world destruction, rather than as a desperately poor nation that abuses its citizens. And sadly for North Koreans like Ji, the regime uses the idea of a looming American attack to justify its existence.
The North Korean threat is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more Trump calls for the destruction of North Korea and acts as if the United States will attack the country, the more likely it becomes that Pyongyang will feel it has no choice but to deter the United States from acting, and the more support its citizens will feel for a government they think is protecting them from the threat of an American attack. In other words, the more Trump hypes the North Korea threat, the more real it becomes.
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