US president Donald Trump put much of the world atwitter and ajitter Tuesday with his comment to the press: “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.” Trump’s certainly proving himself Kim Jong Un’s equal at foreign affairs smack talk.
Is he serious? I believe so. I expect some sort of major military confrontation — possibly even outright war — between the US and North Korea before August ends. Naturally I hope I’m wrong, but matters do seem to be coming to a head.
With that in mind, it’s worth examining some of the US government’s claims about North Korea and how they stack up against reality.
First, let’s look at what Trump means when he refers to the current set of “threats” from North Korea: On August 7, the Washington Post reports, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho “told diplomats that his country will never negotiate away what he called a rational ‘strategic option’ against the threat of attack from the United States. … Ri said Pyongyang will use nuclear weapons only against the United States or any other country that might join it in military action against North Korea.”
In other words, North Korea is “threatening” to defend itself if attacked, and reserving the right to use nuclear weapons in its defense. Doesn’t sound like much of a “threat,” does it?
Next, the current round of mutual saber-rattling coincides with a convenient and likely Trump-approved leak. The Post cites unnamed officials and an alleged Defense Intelligence Agency assessment to the effect that North Korea “has successfully produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can fit inside its missiles” (the claim last month was that the North now has missiles which can reach the US mainland).
This set of claims doesn’t pass the smell test.
First of all, so far the North has only proven (with detonations) that it can make large, heavy, old-style fission atomic weapons, not bona fide nuclear weapons (hydrogen bombs). Miniaturization? That sounds a lot like “Saddam is stockpiling Weapons of Mass Destruction” (he wasn’t) or “Iran is six months from having nukes” (the latter claim having been renewed every six months from 1996 to 2015).
Secondly, while the North recently tested a rocket that it claims is an intercontinental ballistic missile, there’s reason to be skeptical of that claim and secondarily of the notion that they could reliably produce such rockets in quantity and expect them to work.
Finally, there’s the matter of mating those unlikely nukes to those unlikely rockets and getting them to detonate at the impact end of a fall from space. That’s rocket science of an order the North hasn’t previously displayed a flair for.
Claire Boothe Luce called Franklin Delano Roosevelt “the only American president who ever lied us into a war because he did not have the political courage to lead us into it.” If so, Trump seems bent on following in his illustrious predecessor’s footsteps.
Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.