The last country on earth you want to play nuclear chicken with is North Korea, with its bizarre, cultish, militaristic, totalitarian government.
North Koreans have been so brainwashed into revering fat boy Kim Jong-un that they’re willing to sacrifice millions of lives to keep him in power—or at least that’s the line from Pyongyang. Either President Donald Trump hasn’t gotten the memo from his advisors that escalating tensions with Pyongyang isn’t a good idea or he just doesn’t give a damn. If his “fire and fury” comment was designed to rile up his political base at home, it worked. If, however, it was meant to stop Kim from acting recklessly, then it failed.
Trump is a bombastic, colorful figure who likes to use intense and exaggerated words to get his point across. That might have been a good strategy during the presidential campaign, but it’s a terrible strategy in the world of statecraft—and doubly so when your audience is the North Korean government. You can’t out-Kim Kim Jong-un.
No serious analyst who studies North Korea for a living believes that Kim would be brazen and stupid enough to launch a nuclear-tipped ICBM toward U.S. territory. Kim may look, sound and act crazy, but he’s just as rational as his father and grandfather. Preserving the Kim dynasty is his first national security priority. Needless to say, sending a fully armed missile near Guam, as Pyongyang is reportedly planning, would be the beginning of the end for his family enterprise.
Even sane people, however, can bring their countries close to conflict. Wars can also start when prudence and dialogue give way to miscalculation and misreading of motives (see: World War I). The United States and the Soviet Union were a few short decisions away from destroying one another, not because Nikita Khrushchev was some irrational demon ready to take out a couple American cities, but because he and John F. Kennedy found it tough to discern what the other was thinking. Fortunately, backchannel communication between U.S. and Soviet representatives and steely patience from Kennedy were able to thwart a nuclear conflagration – a war that truly would have been full of “fire and fury.”
This is what’s required from President Trump now: patience, pragmatism and clear messaging to the other side – three qualities that have eluded him thus far. As hard as it might be, Trump needs to keep his mouth shut, put people like Seb Gorka on a shorter leash, and work with National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster to disseminate talking points for everyone in the administration to use. The White House can’t have the secretary of defense, the secretary of state, senior advisors, and the president himself reading from different scripts. Misplaced messaging, nuclear weapons and ICBM’s are a very bad combination.
Even more importantly, Trump should order Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Ambassador Nikki Haley to launch a private communication channel with their North Korean counterparts – not to begin negotiations on denuclearization, but to make sure Pyongyang understands where Washington’s red lines are and to express a preference for deescalation. Whether that open channel is Tillerson calling the North Korean foreign minister off-the-books or Haley leveraging preexisting lines at the U.N., U.S. and North Korean officials must arrive at some basic rules about how far the other side is willing to go if its national security is threatened.
Dialogue between two enemies is even more important when unpredictability is at its peak. And that’s where we are at the moment.