Just How Worried Should You Be About North Korea Right Now?
The Debrief: There's Nothing Funny About Trump's Game Of One UpMANship With Kim Jong-un
Donald Trump is a man who seems to be completely enthralled by his own personal brand. You can imagine him re-reading his own Twitter feed whilst laughing or nodding approvingly intermittently. It’s not a stretch to presume that he rewatches videos of himself either, shouting ‘I’d vote for me’ at the screen. Indeed, revelations that he has members of staff brief him twice a day with positive news about himself is confirmation that Trump has a cat-like ego which demands to be stroked.
At first glance, much of the rhetoric Trump has directed at North Korea seems perfectly practised, you get the sense that he’s rehearsed ‘fire and fury’ in front of the mirror in his Presidential dressing room more than once. So, practiced is it, that it seems almost like something a Trump parody act or impersonator would say. That’s right, on serious matters of foreign policy Donald Trump is getting more and more stock phrase generator by the day.
Last night, as Britain went to bed, Trump threatened Kim Jong-un with ‘fire and fury like the world has never seen’, repeating his alliterative phrasing again like a smug pimpled GCSE student who knows they’re going to get full marks for ticking the rhetoric box.
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The world was completely underwhelmed by Trump's response to North Korea, dismissing it as a crude and bombastic threat. The news that North Korea has now got a nuclear warhead small enough to attach to a missile that could reach the US is very troubling. It’s serious news that, surely, needs a serious response. Instead, it seems, we have cartoon posturing.
Is that really all the Leader of the Free World has? We asked an expert whether there was more to Trump's rhetorical riposte to North Korea than meets the ear.
Dr Patricia Lewis is the Research Director of International Security at the Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House. She told The Debrief that there is certainly cause for concern as to how quickly the current situation with North Korea is escalating. 'There are so many levels on which one can be concerned and worried' she said, 'I think the most important thing is the potential for miscalculation or misinterpretation of what is said or what is done by either side. We have a number of examples in the past of when a large scale military exercise has been seen as a pretext for invasion. This is something we know North Korea is very worried about – every time there is a large scale military exercise involving Japan and the US happens in the region the rhetoric ramps up, it gets more belligerent because they’re worried that this could be a pretext for a real invasion.’
‘We know from lessons in history that this has happened elsewhere as well' Dr Lewis continued, 'the biggest one is Able Archer in 1983'. This was when NATO allies carried out a realistic live-fire exercise. Their simulation was so convincing that some officials in the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact believed it. Some historians argue that this is the closest calls we've ever had with nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the end, Dr Lewis explains, 'East Germans had picked up false intelligence that it was a pretext for an invasion. When it turned out that this was a deliberate piece of misinformation, it was resolved as a misunderstanding through back channels, but, if it hadn’t been we would have been in real trouble.’
In terms of how this relates to the current situation with North Korea she says ‘you might think a military exercise will deter but it can have the opposite effect and preempt something - it can make a country more scared and worried and they may take an action that you hadn't expected.’
The prospect of thermonuclear war is not to be taken lightly and maniacal dictators like Kim Jong-un must be handled carefully, so for Trump to come out with his rhetorical guns blazing in the most provocative, macho, blunt show of force he possibly could isn’t necessarily the best approach.
On the other hand, Dr Lewis says it could all part of a very well calculated American plan. ‘I think that what the Americans are trying to do is the twin track approach. One is a threatening approach. The language Trump used was actually very similar Kim Jong-un's language - the North Koreans always talk about a 'sea of fire' or 'wolves tearing you apart' – they use very flowery language. So, Trump's use of 'fire and fury' felt, to me, like a very deliberate attempt to reflect their language back on them.' And, what of the other approach? 'They’ve also got the diplomatic approach on the go, 'fire and fury' isn't all there is' Dr Lewis explains.
So, the million dollar question: does Dr Lewis think we should be worried about nuclear war with North Korea? 'Am I worried?' she says, 'No, I’m not worried right now. The United States is hoping between both of those tracks they can create a situation where North Korea will come back to the negotiating table.’
The United States is certainly taking North Korea seriously. Indeed, as North Korean defector, Yeonmi Park, told The Debrief last year ‘there is nothing funny about Kim Jong-un’. North Korea is often presented as a farcical dictatorial dystopian joke but the harsh reality of the regime is no laughing matter.
When two world leaders who both desire attention above all and expect to have influence, as a result, go head to head, the fallout could be catastrophic but as Dr Lewis points out, Trump's posturing will have been calculated to the syllable.
Diplomacy is a necessary skill, one which, Trump may not appear to possess. But, the truth is that neither Trump nor Kim Jong-un really wants mutually assured destruction. It’s clear that Trump is posturing to make himself look strong and win approval in the eyes of those who voted for him because of his tough talk but he should remember this: on the other side of the world there’s another megalomaniac who needs to hold on to the support of his people too….
Even if we don’t live to see any sort of war with North Korea, and let’s hope that we don’t, there’s no doubt at all that the threat of one will have an impact on people. A study conducted in 2003, looking into the impact of the Cold War on people’s mental health found that ‘frequent fear of nuclear war in adolescents seems to be an indicator for an increased risk for common mental disorders and deserves serious attention’, particularly among young adults.
If this is the start of a new Cold War-esque period in which we are all going to get news notifications because Donald Trump has threatened North Korea or vice versa before bed, then that’s a problem in its own right. We already know that young people today are more anxious today because of global geopolitical and economic uncertainty from Syria to Brexit.
Our nerves are at the mercy of two egomaniacs who are currently engaged in a game of nuclear one upMANship but the good news is that diplomats are working behind the scenes, out of sight, like duck legs swimming furiously under the surface.
Dr Lewis is clear that North Korea's isolation from the rest of the world, coupled with their fears that they are going to be invaded and general paranoia all means that they really believe 'their nuclear weapons will deter an attack or invasion from the United States.' This is, she says, 'a miscalculation' because their insistence on developing nuclear weapons are provocative and increasing the likelihood of action.
The principal argument for maintaining our controversial nuclear arsenal here in the United Kingdom is that it acts as a deterrent. That's also what North Korea's thinking, so let's hope we don't find out what happens when this strategy fails.
It might not be necessary to call Hillary Clinton just yet, but it's probably a good idea that someone keeps her on speed dial.
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