President Trump’s promise on Tuesday to show North Korea “fire and fury” if the rogue nation continues to issue threats against the United States added a bit of theatrics to increasingly tense relations between the two countries.
The imagery the president offered seemed to add a sense of urgency of the situation, and underscored the stakes of a conflict between two nuclear armed rivals. Wasting no time, meme lords on the internet drew comparisons between Trump’s ominous warning and the first use of dragons in battle on this week’s episode of Game of Thrones. While ridiculous and over the top, the memes characterize the hysterics with which we are approaching the North Korea issue well.
A large part of the conversation on social media and in the news centers on how “things are different now” with Trump in the White House. That having the United States’ nuclear arsenal at the fingertips of a reality television star adds a certain level of instability and danger to a situation that is seemingly spinning out of control. But, is it really?
North Korea has threatened Guam, and other parts of the United States before. In August 2016, North Korea said Guam and every other military asset in the Pacific would “face ruin in the face of all-out and substantial attack.” In 2013, Kim Jong-un reportedly ordered plans drawn up to attack Guam, South Korea, Hawaii, and the continental United States. That incident led to the United States deploying its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD missile systems to Guam.
Certainly, North Korea’s rapid advancement of its nuclear program—far faster than predictions that have driven American policy decisions towards dealing with the DPRK in recent years—have changed the specifics of the strategic threat. But it has been universally accepted since their first nuclear weapon test 11 years ago, the world would eventually contend with a nuclear-armed North Korea with ICBMs. It was not if, but when.
What is also universally accepted is the reality that North Korea would be turned to glass in the event of an attack on U.S. citizens or territory, be it conventionally or with nuclear weapons. A conventional fight would come at great cost, as Secretary of Defense Mattis said earlier this year, likely tens of thousands of American lives would be lost, but the outcome would be inevitable. If the war was nuclear, it would take around four minutes. Does having Donald Trump in the White House change that outcome?
We would have to assume that Trump’s presence has somehow changed Kim Jong-un’s thinking to a suicide strategy. The Trump administration has repeatedly said they do not desire regime change in North Korea. A war would have to be initiated by Kim for this nightmare scenario to unfold. Nothing about his actions since assuming power would indicate a suicidal end. His motivation for nuclear weapons has been and will continue to be a strategy to be taken seriously on the world stage, a strategy which is working well. While Kim may be a brutal dictator, he remains a rational actor. Throwing it all away on a chance to nuke Guam sounds ridiculous, because it is ridiculous. No matter how much credit people want to give Trump, even the Donald cannot tweet our way to a nuclear war.
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