Following a combative tweet issued by Donald Trump last week, North Korea's foreign minister said the president's comments amounted to a "declaration of war" from the United States.
Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho told reporters Monday that Trump's tweet, which warned that leader Kim Jong Un "won't be around much longer," gives North Korea the right to shoot down U.S. bombers even outside the country's airspace. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders responded Monday, saying "We have not declared war on North Korea."
Trump's latest Twitter snafu follows a speech to the United Nations General Assembly last week in which he vowed to "totally destroy" North Korea. This escalating rhetoric may make diplomacy more difficult as North Korea advances its nuclear program.
To make sense of the president's tweets, Pacific Standard spoke to T.J. Pempel, a political scientist at the University of California–Berkeley, who specializes in international relations in East Asia.
Should we take Ri's rhetoric seriously? What is the real threat here?
There's been a real escalation of the tensions between North Korea and the United States, and it comes down to the rhetoric triggered by Donald Trump—of unceasing bombast and personal insults. North Korea is certainly no stranger to using this kind of vocabulary, but we're now getting personal insults that are not at all helpful to the diplomatic resolution of this issue. Is the North Korean regime preparing to shoot down American planes that are in international airspace? I doubt it. I don't think that's very plausible, because the first plane that goes down will trigger an all-out attack on North Korea that will ultimately lead to the destruction of the regime. These people can be bombastic, but they're not crazy.
I think Foreign Minister Ri's comment fails to understand what a declaration of war means in the U.S. We don't have a congressional declaration of war or anything close to it. What we've got it the president acting precipitously and boisterously in an effort to make his base look good or his own stature look better, but none of this is moving in the direction of resolving the issue. Tensions are rising in North Korea, and they should be, because they have no idea what the U.S. is likely to do. But clearly whatever North Korea does in response will fall heavily on South Korea and secondarily on Japan—not so much on the U.S.
We have seen empty threats and insults from these leaders before. How is this any different?
The last thing that came even remotely close were George W. Bush's statements in 2002 when he talked about Kim Jong Il as a "pygmy" and the North Korean regime as part of the "axis of evil"—but that was pretty short-lived. North Korea is very quick to make these kinds of comments, but American presidents have not been prone to this kind of bombast and rhetoric. Certainly President [Barack] Obama did not use anything close to that kind of language. George W. Bush was reigned in; [Bill] Clinton was doing his best to find ways to negotiate diplomatically. So this is a big change, and it's a change that falls very heavily on the White House.
And there's the fact that Kim personally issued the statement about Trump being a "dotard"—I think that's the first time any statement that's come out of North Korea like that was attributed to the president himself.
What is Trump trying to do with these tweets, since they're not contributing to a diplomatic solution?
Whenever he gets into trouble politically—which I think he's in now with regard to the Russia investigation, the forthcoming election in Alabama, and the Affordable Care Act revision—his normal strategy is to dangle something new and different before the media, and everyone will glom onto the new shiny object. That's the strategy that he's mastered over the years. It's him as a master of the media, and unfortunately the media tends to follow.
The second thing is that he just doesn't know anything about this situation. He's not a man who has experience in foreign affairs. He's never quite left his reality-show mindset, where somebody says something bad and you immediately go on the attack. This is just the style to which he's given 20 or 30 years of his life. So in many ways, it's just normal Donald—or abnormal Donald.
So what does this instability mean for the international community?
It means we've got a very dangerous situation in Washington. If I were in South Korea and I were President Moon [Jae-in], I'd be trying my best to get in touch with folks in and around the White House and say: "For god's sake, can anybody reign this man in? John Kelly, Jim Mattis, do you have any influence? H.R. McMaster, what are you going to do?" I don't think there's any evidence that these folks have the capacity to change him at the rhetorical media level. What they may have the capacity to do is sit down, if and when it comes to making any strategic decisions, and say, "It would be a mistake to move planes closer to North Korea," or, "It would be a mistake to get more ships heading in that direction."
With the military presence around Trump, analysts have said there might be more stability. Are we seeing that at all?
I think there's been a lot of influence from John Kelly since he's taken over as chief of staff. It hasn't been 100 percent by any stretch of the imagination, but I think he has more control over access. That doesn't stop Trump from turning on Fox News or checking the Internet to see what his favorite sources are saying. I think we're better off with those folks in and around him, but it's a mistake to assume that Trump will be pliable putty in their hands.
At this point, how could the administration walk back from these threats?
I would like to see the administration taking the phone out of Trump's hands so that no more insults can be issued. The long-term strategy for the U.S. has to be what it's always been, which is to get behind-the-scene negotiations going with the North to get some version of a freeze on missile testing, and that's going to mean serious concessions on the part of the U.S. But in the meantime, it's also time to let the sanctions work. The U.S. has successfully gotten two big resolutions through the U.N. over the last month. The Chinese have been very clear that their banks will not be dealing with the North. All these things are real pinches for North Korea, particularly if they're really implemented. This is not time for the U.S. to go and do something crazy.
How will these sanctions work, and what could come of them?
There's a lot of debate as to whether sanctions work on reigning in different governments, but we saw them work with regard to Iran. They took a long time, but they did lead to a nuclear arrangement that many people feel is a pretty good deal. If the sanctions are really imposed, that changes the calculation of the North Korean regime. They can say they're going to fall back on their self-reliance, and people will tighten their belts one more notch, but I don't think these are completely irrational people. After the sanctions are in place for a couple of months, if the U.S. puts out feelers for diplomatic negotiations behind the scenes, there's a chance we can de-escalate this.
What is so radical about a tweet being considered a "declaration of war"? What's the precedent for that?
I don't know of any president that's been remotely close to doing anything like that. Occasionally somebody says something dumb, but usually they catch themselves. This is take-no-quarter. This is sending out things that are blatantly stupid, for which there's never any apology or modification. This makes it very difficult, because foreign policy and diplomacy are very delicate actions to advance, and they're not best advanced by making bombastic statements that, in essence, upend the entire history of what's been going on. To declare that the North Korean regime is going to be "destroyed" completely undercuts any credibility that the U.S. has. The fact that Trump is talking about walking away from the Iran nuclear deal sends a horrible message. It says, "We could possibly arrange something with you guys in 2017 or 2018, but we might change our minds in 2020, so you're screwed." The messages are absolutely contradictory. There's no consistency to any of this; it's absolute random chaos.
What is the latest on North Korea's nuclear capabilities?
They're clearly advancing their program much faster than most of the scientists thought they would. They're making much greater progress on their missiles, and it looks like they've got an ICBM. The problem is bigger for the entire region and for the U.S. than was previously thought.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.