WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) — President Donald Trump continued to escalate his Twitter threats against North Korea Friday, saying the military is “locked and loaded” to respond if Kim Jong Un acts “unwisely,” but doubt remains among experts over how far either leader is truly prepared to go.
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Two hours later, he retweeted a press release from Air Force Pacific Command about B-1B bombers being prepared to “#FightTonight” if called upon to do so.
Readiness to “fight tonight” has long been the standard for U.S. forces in South Korea.
A White House official downplayed Trump’s tweet, telling CNN, “There are military plans for just about any crisis we may face in the world. These plans are updated on a continuous basis as needed and provide options for the president. This isn’t anything new.”
On Friday afternoon, Trump claimed that if Kim utters one overt threat, “he will truly regret it and he will regret it fast.”
North Korea, meanwhile, issued a statement Friday describing the U.S. as “the mastermind of nuclear threat, the heinous nuclear war fanatic.”
“Trump is driving the situation on the Korean peninsula to the brink of a nuclear war,” said the statement, released a day after North Korea posted a detailed plan to strike against Guam.
The latest threats of disaster from both countries follow a week of rapidly rising tensions and overheated rhetoric, as the Trump administration faces criticism at home for sending mixed messages and using careless language.
“Trump’s attempt to play the role of nuclear ‘madman’ is as dangerous, foolish, and counterproductive as North Korea’s frequent hyperbolic threats against the United States,” Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, said in a statement Tuesday.
Kimball was responding to Trump’s comment that “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
Most observers took that as a promise of nuclear retaliation for verbal threats. Trump reinforced that impression with tweets Wednesday dubiously claiming that he had made America’s nuclear arsenal “far stronger and more powerful than ever before” in six months.
Addressing reporters before meeting with national security aides Thursday, Trump said his earlier threats may not have been tough enough.
“If North Korea does anything in terms of even thinking about attack of anybody that we love or we represent, or our allies or us, they can be very, very nervous -- I’ll tell you why -- and they should be very nervous,” he said. “Because things will happen to them like they never thought possible.”
It seems every president threatens the existence of the North Korean regime at one point or another.
In 1993, six months into his presidency, Bill Clinton warned that the U.S. would “quickly and overwhelmingly retaliate” against a nuclear strike.
“It would mean the end of their country as they know it,” he said.
President George W. Bush made a vague but severe threat in his 2002 State of the Union address after labeling North Korea as part of an “axis of evil” with Iran and Iraq.
“All nations should know: America will do what is necessary to ensure our nation's security. The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons,” Bush said.
Later in his presidency, Bush emphasized that a military response to North Korea’s provocations was still on the table. President Obama held a similar position, saying in 2014 that the U.S. “will not hesitate to use our military might to defend our allies and our way of life.”
In a 2016 interview with CBS News, Obama said, “It's not something that lends itself to an easy solution. We could, obviously, destroy North Korea with our arsenals. But aside from the humanitarian costs of that, they are right next door to our vital ally, Republic of Korea."
Trump’s promise of “fire and fury” is arguably not much more extreme.
“He threatened North Korea with massive retaliation if they attack the U.S.,” said James Carafano, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the Heritage Foundation. “That’s only been American policy for about 50 years. So there’s nothing really remarkable in that.”
The context of the president’s remarks and the opaqueness of them are troubling to deterrence analysts, according to Harry Krejsa, Bacevich Fellow at the Center for a New American Security and an expert on Asia-Pacific security.
“The issue is not so much the tone or tenor but the care and detail attributed to what the threat is,” Krejsa said. “Specifically the president seems to have threatened a response to North Korean threats.”
There is also a question of credibility. Soon after Trump’s declaration that North Korea “best not make any more threats,” North Korea made more threats. The Trump administration responded with strongly worded statements, not fire and fury the likes of which the world has never seen.
“Where the threat seemed to be in response to rhetoric, that rhetoric was immediately repeated,” Krejsa said.
After North Korea did what Trump had just warned them not to do, Trump aide Sebastian Gorka insisted that the president’s conditional statement was not a “red line.”
“We don’t talk about red lines because red lines sometimes can be misunderstood,” he told Sinclair Wednesday, refusing to clarify the president’s threat.
“Let’s allow Pyongyang to interpret that,” he said. “I think those words are pretty self-evident. It means that we are serious and if you threaten us, we will take action.”
Other administration officials have spent much of the week explaining and walking back the president’s statements.
“What we're doing is a diplomatically-led effort that is succeeding in drawing the international community together and speaking with one voice,” Secretary of Defense James Mattis told reporters Thursday. “That's where we're at. Do I have military options? Of course I do.”
While he defended Trump’s use of “language that Kim Jong Un would understand,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has also attempted to lower the temperature of the conflict.
“I think Americans should sleep well at night, have no concerns about this particular rhetoric of the last few days,” he said Wednesday.
According to Carafano, not all of the president’s chest-beating statements are directed at North Korean ears.
“This tweet was really to reassure the people that supported the president that he’s going to meet his obligation to defend the country,” he said following Trump’s Wednesday morning tweets. “He’s not tweeting to the rest of the world. It’s like Kim, he’s not tweeting to you, dude.”
For a threat to be an effective deterrent, Krejsa said, it needs to communicate exactly what is and is not acceptable behavior and where the off-ramps to deescalate the standoff are.
“To be credible, the threats have to be specific and conceivably possible, backed up by U.S. action,” he said.
Trump’s threats have often lacked those qualities, but so have North Korea’s.
“In the case of North Korea, we’ve always had to separate their rhetoric from their actions,” Krejsa said.
The regime’s language is typically bellicose and inflated, but experts say the common perception of Kim as crazy and irrational is misguided. All of his actions, including his pursuit of nuclear weapons, are strategically aimed at preserving his power.
“Saddam Hussein was not crazy. Hitler wasn’t crazy. He just made massive strategic miscalculations,” Carafano said. “The worst thing you can do is, unless somebody is actually certifiably crazy, assuming that they’re crazy is actually very dangerous.”
Given that, the odds of a North Korean missile strike against Guam or anyone else are low.
“If they were to launch a nuclear first strike, it would eventually mean the end of the regime,” Krejsa said.
Successfully developing nuclear weapons would give Kim a powerful bargaining chip, though, and it would likely enable North Korea to get away with more bad behavior in the region. Being perceived as a threat is a negotiating tactic that has worked many times over the last three decades.
“It’s like your kid screams at you unless you give them a cookie so you give them a cookie,” Carafano said, “and then what do they do? The next time they want a cookie, they scream at you.”
Dropped into this scenario, Trump is something of a wild card. In business and politics, he has a history of making over-the-top threats and not following through, but backed up by nuclear weapons, his words cannot be entirely dismissed.
Officials have said Trump’s “fire and fury” threat was improvised, and it seems doubtful his early morning tweets are being cleared with South Korea and Japan either. With vacancies in many key roles at the Departments of Defense and State, communication with allies about the president’s intentions and their concerns may be hindered at a critical moment.
“This is where the absence of a U.S. ambassador to South Korea really shows and we’re being hurt by not having staffed up as quickly as we really need to,” Krejsa said.
Despite this week’s drama, Carafano said the administration’s goals in North Korea are clear and achievable: prevent a regional military conflict and prevent the regime from being able to attack the U.S.
“You can achieve both those goals without either regime change in North Korea or starting World War III,” he said. “You can achieve them with nuclear deterrence, missile defense, conventional deterrence, and heavy sanctioning. The policy writes itself.”