By Bonnie Kristian
“Rocket Man.” “Dotard.” “Madman.” “President Evil.” The insults between President Trump and the Kim Jong-un regime have flown fast and thick in recent days, each side deploying rhetoric that threatens to turn this war of words into outright war.
Wise as it is to take this bluster with a grain of salt given its sources, it is wiser still to recognize the risk here is real. On Saturday, for instance, Trump announced that continued verbal antagonism from Pyongyang means “they won’t be around much longer”—to which North Korea responded Monday by claiming the right to shoot down U.S. bombers outside its airspace because Washington has “declared war.” The United States’ cold war with North Korea may not heat up this week or this month or this year, but none of those timelines is at this point unthinkable.
What allies of both sides have rightly recognized is how utterly ineffective this rhetorical sparring is for achieving any positive resolution or even stasis in U.S.-North Korea relations. There is every reason to believe Kim’s primary goal in his nuclear ambitions is to deter the U.S. and the international community more broadly from pursuing regime change, but a steady onslaught of threats from the Trump administration incentivizes him to escalate out of fear. Returning the Kim regime’s taunts like for like only brings us closer to nuclear war, the very thing we’re trying to avoid.
If Washington has failed to comprehend this dynamic, Seoul and Beijing have not. “Under such circumstances, an exchange of excessive verbal threats would only heighten anxiety,” said a Saturday statement from South Korea’s Democratic Party, of which South Korean President Moon Jae-in is a member. That comment is in line with Moon’s previous calls for patience and negotiations between North and South Korea. “The people worked together to rebuild the country from the Korean War,” Moon said in August, “and we cannot lose everything again because of a war”—especially not a war that might well be avoided with the prudence he recommends.
China has issued strikingly similar warnings. Washington and Pyongyang must “not further irritate each other and add oil to the flames of the tense situation on the peninsula at present,” a Chinese foreign ministry representation said Monday, for only when “all relevant parties … exercise restraint” and “speak and act cautiously” is a peaceful solution to the conflict with North Korea possible.
That Pyongyang would heed this advice is doubtful, as colorful insults may be the one thing the Kim regime loves more than nukes. But the United States need not—must not—continue to engage in North Korea’s reckless cycle of tit-for-tat. The more Washington threatens North Korea, the greater Kim’s incentives to develop and, crucially, use his nuclear capabilities.
What makes the war of words so dangerously ineffective is the purpose of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal: attempted deterrence of external regime change. Kim wants nukes because he believes, not without reason, that they are his insurance to stay in power. This is a tactic of fear, not strength, and it is exactly that fear, if exacerbated by international threats, that could prompt Kim to make a first strike. To play Kim’s game of insults is to push him—and thus ourselves—toward an avoidable war.
A “North Korean offensive strike is unlikely,” writes Blaine Harden, a longtime foreign correspondent who chronicled the collapse of Soviet communism and has biographied North Korean defector and dictator alike, in a compelling historical analysis published Saturday. “That is,” Harden continues, “unless the Kim regime is provoked, perhaps by a particularly warmongering early-morning tweet, into believing that its existence really is at risk.”
Thus it is crucial for the White House to understand Kim’s motivations and family history, to understand that this regime is “a criminal enterprise focused on long-term survival, far more adept at enslaving its people than fighting big-boy wars,” as Harden puts it—and that Kim almost certainly knows his “nuclear hardware is most valuable on the shelf.”
It may be tempting to return Pyongyang’s petty verbal jabs with insults of our own, but to indulge that impulse is neither effective nor prudent. Kim already knows U.S. military might far exceeds his wildest dreams, and it is this fear that drives his foolish rhetoric. The United States can do what the Kim regime cannot: hold our tongues and let American economic, diplomatic, and military power do our talking for us.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities. She is a weekend editor at The Week and a columnist at Rare, and her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, CNN, Politico, Relevant Magazine, The Hill, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.
This piece was originally published by U.S. News and World Report on September 30, 2017. Read more HERE.