Trump's "Fire and Fury" Threat Won't Change North Korea's Behavior

Harsh rhetoric adds to the administration's already confusing and contradictory messaging on North Korea.

AP

U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to unleash the "fire and fury" of America's nuclear arsenal on North Korea as the reclusive Communist country continues to issue its own fiery statements and conduct alarming missile launches. Without a dramatic change in policy to match, these comments alone are unlikely to dissuade the regime in Pyongyang from its provocative behavior and are more likely to feed into their existing propaganda narrative. The posturing, which seems at odds with other U.S. government statements, could send dangerous mixed signals to the North Koreans, their Chinese and Russian partners, and U.S. allies in the region alike. 

Trump made the pronouncement during a press conference at his country club in Bedminster, New Jersey. Trump is supposedly on a working vacation from his property in New Jersey while workers finish planned renovations to the White House.

“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” Trump declared. “He has been very threatening beyond a normal state, and as I said, they will be met with fire and fury and, frankly, power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.”

Neither Trump nor members of his administration immediately clarified the content or intent of these remarks. A Pentagon spokesperson told Politico there had been no change in U.S. military policy or posture with regards to the Korean Peninsula. The next day, Trump took to Twitter to expand on his remarks.

"My first order as President was to renovate and modernize our nuclear arsenal," he wrote. "It is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before. Hopefully we will never have to use this power, but there will never be a time that we are not the most powerful nation in the world!"

It's important to note up front that Trump's first executive order as president, which he signed on Jan. 20, 2017, related to the Affordable Care Act, not nuclear weapons. The order calling for a new nuclear posture review came seven days later. President Barack Obama had already put plans into motion to modernize the stockpile, which some estimate could cost up to $1 trillion and could take up to 30 years to complete.

Trump has already voiced his opinions about America's nuclear capabilities on numerous occasions, both during his election campaign and after. He infamously seemed unable to explain the nuclear triad underpinning America's deterrent capabilities during one presidential debate in 2015, called for expanding the country's stockpile for the first time in decades a year later, and once reportedly demanded to know what the point of building the weapons was if you couldn't ever use them.

In addition, Trump has previously appeared to suggest he would be willing to launch attacks, either nuclear or non-nuclear, if North Korea continued with its ballistic missile tests. We at The War Zone have written before about the myriad ways the United States can go about gathering intelligence about North Korea, its armed forces, and its intentions, as well as the available military options.

Whatever Trump's actual intent, the harsh remarks fit with what has already been weeks of conflicting statements about how the Trump administration intends to handle the growing tensions on the Korean Peninsula. On Aug. 1, 2017, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who famously seems to avoid directly engaging with the press, arrived at the State Department's briefing room to take questions.

"We continue to call upon them [China] to use that influence with North Korea to create the conditions where we can have a productive dialogue," he said at one point. "We don’t think having a dialogue where the North Koreans come to the table assuming they’re going to maintain their nuclear weapons is productive."

AP

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks during a meeting in The Philippines in August 2017.

The next day Vice President Mike Pence categorically ruled out the possibility of talks with the North Koreans. On Aug. 6, 2017, Tillerson reiterated the possibility for negotiations if North Korea stopped its missile tests. After Trump's comments from Bedminister, America's top diplomat again tried to be more measured and conciliatory.

"I think the President just wanted to be clear to the North Korean regime  on the U.S. unquestionable ability to defend itself, will defend itself  and its allies," he said to members of the press as they flew to Guam for a scheduled visit. "I think it was important that he deliver that  message to avoid any miscalculation on their part."

But deterrence is fundamentally based on a clarity of messaging to any potential opponent. To be sure, there is a precedent for governments disregarding signaling they can't decipher. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, President John F. Kennedy famously decided to ignore an apparent threat in favor of conciliatory messages from the Soviet Union, which helped deescalate the situation. It still seems especially risky to rely on this when it comes to discussions of nuclear conflict. 

The War Zone, thanks in part to documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act, has already written a detailed look at how the U.S. military might go about launching a nuclear strike. An unclassified "risk" U.S. Strategic Command notes in its official operations plan is "adversaries misperceive messages." How do you go about mitigating this? "Constantly assess culturally appropriate strategic communication strategy, tightly integrated through the interagency process."

STRATCOM via FOIA

There were criticisms regarding Trump's hyperbolic comment from both Republicans and Democrats in Congress, worried about the potential for a dangerous new phase in the hostility between the United States and North Korea. Many of the comments seemed to focus heavily on the need for a clear and coherent message to the North Koreans rather than off-the-cuff statements.

“Isolating the North Koreans has not halted their pursuit of nuclear weapons,” Dianne Feinstein, a Democratic Senator for California and the ranking member of her party on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement. “And President Trump is not helping the situation with his bombastic comments.”

"I take exception to the President's comments because you've got to be sure that you can do what you say you're going to do," Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, told KTAR radio in Phoenix after hearing about Trump’s declaration. "I think this is very, very, very serious."

There were already concerns about how Trump's negotiation style might mix with nuclear weapons. In January 2017, Senator Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Representative Ted Lieu, a Democrat from California, introduced a bicameral bill to try and prevent Trump's from being able to launch a nuclear strike without Congressional approval. The comments from Bedminister reignited calls for these restrictions, which are not presently in place.

North Korea State Media

A North Korean Hwasong-12 IRBM.

Surprising few experts and regular observers of the growing tensions in East Asia, the North Koreans quickly responded to Trump's comments with more threats directed at the United States, as well as its allies in South Korea and Japan. Most notably, a statement attributed to an unnamed spokesman for the Korean People's Army Strategic Force, taken to mean the country’s nuclear-capable ballistic missile units, said the country was working on an operational plan to attack the U.S. military's strategic bases on the island of Guam.

“The KPA Strategic Force is now carefully examining the operational plan for making an enveloping fire at the areas around Guam with medium-to-long-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12,” the individual said. “The plan is to be soon reported to the Supreme Command soon after going through full examination and completion and will be put into practice in a multi-concurrent and consecutive way any moment once Kim Jong Un, supreme commander of the nuclear force of the DPRK, makes a decision.”

There is no clear indication from the statement that this threat is imminent – it's also a threat North Korea has made before – and it seems more likely that the plan described is akin to U.S. military own operations plans for potential crises. The North Koreans are definitely capable of launching this attack, having successfully test-fired the Hwasong-12 intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM), which experts estimate does have the range to hit Guam and could potentially carry a nuclear warhead.

However, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis responded with his own stern statement, implying that the United States would neutralize the North Korean regime, at great cost to its population, if there was an actual attack on American soil. "The DPRK should cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people," he said, referred to by an acronym for its formal name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

This seemed to double down on Trump's initial threat, but the rest of the notice included caveats that suggested the U.S. military wouldn't swing into action unless there was an imminent threat from the North Koreans. It also highlighted ongoing diplomatic efforts.

"While our State Department is making every effort to resolve this global threat through diplomatic means, it must be noted that the combined allied militaries now possess the most precise, rehearsed and robust defensive and offensive capabilities on Earth," Mattis wrote. "The DPRK regime’s actions will continue to be grossly overmatched by ours and would lose any arms race or conflict it initiates."

The War Zone has previously examined the conventional and nuclear capabilities the U.S. military could employ on the Korean Peninsula. In addition, American troops man defensive batteries of Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) ballistic missile interceptors both on Guam and in South Korea, specifically to counter the threat of North Korean IRBMs, such as the BM-25 Musudan and the more advanced Hwasong-12.

Whether this system would be able to take out multiple missiles at once or a larger intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) are issues we at The War Zone have previously discussed in depth. Similar questions persist about the capabilities of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system that presently protects the contiguous United States and Alaska.

Still riding high on the a flurry of successful advanced ballistic missile tests, North Korea and its leader Kim Jong-un already seem disinclined to back down in the face of repeated American and international condemnation. In July 2017 alone, North Korea fired two of its all-new Hwasong-14 ICBMs, which many believe has the ability to hit a significant portion of the continental United States.

KCNA

North Korean premier Kim Jong-un hugs a military officer after the first successful test of the Hwasong-14 ICBM in July 2017.

On Aug. 8, 2017, The Washington Post also published a story stating that North Korea’s scientists and engineers were making progress toward a miniaturized nuclear warhead that could fit on many of its growing arsenal of land- and submarine-launched ballistic missiles, citing a leaked intelligence assessment. The United States believes the insular country has conducted five nuclear tests and many had been expecting a sixth to coincide with the launch of the Hwasong-14. This test would likely test the miniaturized nuclear warhead.

North Korea had shown its defiance after the U.N. Security Council unanimously passed a new resolution aimed at toughening sanctions against it over its ballistic missile tests on Aug. 5, 2017. United Nations members and their citizens are now prohibited from accepting any North Korean coal, iron, and iron ore exports, letting in any additional North Korean nationals for work, or starting new joint ventures or expanding existing cooperative arrangements. The resolution also added a number of individuals and entities to existing sanctions lists.

“We will, under no circumstances, put the nukes and ballistic rockets on the negotiating table,” North Korea’s foreign minister Ri Yong-ho had said in a statement on Aug. 7, 2017. “Neither shall we flinch even an inch from the road to bolstering up the nuclear forces chosen by ourselves unless the hostile policy and nuclear threat of the U.S. … are fundamentally eliminated.”

AP

A view of the UN Security Council as it unanimously passes a new resolution against North Korea in August 2017.

And even if the North Korean regime ultimately decides to dismiss Trump's comments as an immediate threat, the remarks, as well as Mattis' response to the specific threat against Guam, can only fuel North Korea’s long-standing narrative the United States uses "nuclear blackmail" to bully smaller countries and that American forces and their allies are actively preparing for an attack to destroy the country’s Communist regime and eliminate its key figures, including premier Kim Jong-un. North Korea describes its own nuclear arsenal as a way of assuring the country is treated fairly in international affairs.

So, a carefully thought out "culturally appropriate strategic communication strategy" is perhaps especially important when it comes to North Korea.  Back in March 2017, Tyler Rogoway and I had explained the inherent danger to giving any undue weight to the North Korea’s claims, writing:

So, it seems unlikely that the sterner American statements will goad North Korea into changing its own policies unless they’re actually coupled with a new, cohesive strategy. They will undoubtedly inflame the regime's own pronouncements and paranoia about the United States. They could also serve to lighten the hair-trigger that separates a shaky peace from total war on the Korean Peninsula.

AP

Vice President Mike Pence looks out over the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea in April 2017.

There's also the distinct possibility that Trump’s blustery comments, along with the seemingly contradictory statements from his own administration, may set the United States up for a “commitment trap” where it will either have to back up this threat of “fire and fury” with some sort of actual action, which could easily end up looking trivial, or walk the rhetoric back in one or more potentially embarrassing clarifications.

Either path could simply embolden North Korea. Neither set of options, short of an all-out confrontation, seems likely to curtail the country’s advanced weapons programs. On top of that, a full-scale war would be devastating for both North and South Korea, potentially putting the United States at odds with its own allies. 

These considerations had seemed to impact the response to North Korea's second Hwasong-14 test, which landed relatively close to Japan's Hokkaido island. Japanese authorities said they couldn't continue to let the provocations go unchallenged and South Korea called an emergency meeting with U.S. military commanders on the Peninsula to discuss the available military options. 

But ultimately, the United States and its allies chose to conduct shows of force, as they have done many times in the past in response to North Korean provocations. On the ground, U.S. and South Korean troops fired their own ballistic missiles in a second combined demonstration. In the air, American B-1 bombers and fighter jets flew with fighters from South Korean Air Force and Japanese Air Self-Defense Force. Additional flights of the B-1s have continued sporadically over the last two weeks.

Trump and his administration have also employed a similar mix of both flattering and threatening statements to try and elicit Chinese and Russian support in dealing with North Korea. Earlier in August, Trump himself took to Twitter to criticize the Chinese government for not doing more to reign in its small neighbor. 

"They do NOTHING for us with North Korea, just talk," Trump wrote on his preferred social media outlet. "China could easily solve this problem!"

After the Chinese voted in favor of the new U.N. sanctions, however, Trump thanked both them and the Russian for agreeing to the resolution. China and Russia are permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, which gives them the right to veto any motion.

In response to Trump's remarks, China's state-run media outlet Xinhua called on both North Korea and the United States and its allies to halt any provocative actions, including both missile launches and military exercises, which is the Chinese government's repeated position. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had called for the U.S. government to take "prudent" steps to deescalate tensions earlier on Aug. 8, 2017.

It remains to be seen how or if the U.S. government will make any visible changes in its policies or activities in response to Trump's remarks. In his comments on the way to Guam, Secretary of State Tillerson seemed to again outline the continuing contradictions in the Administration's stance.

"What the President is doing is sending a strong message to North Korea in language that Kim Jong-un can understand, because he doesn’t seem to understand diplomatic language," he said. But "I think Americans should sleep well at night, have no concerns about this particular rhetoric of the last few days." he added. 

For the moment, at least, it seems that the actions, which will hopefully speak louder than the words, are business as usual for the United States and its allies in East Asia.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com