President Donald Trump recently said Kim Jong Un is “obviously a madman.”
He’s painted the North Korean leader as having a blinding, suicidal hatred of the United States.
In Trump’s world, the only reason Kim Jong Un wants to develop nuclear weapons is to destroy America and its allies. This is how he justifies his antagonistic, bombastic rhetoric toward the North Korean regime.
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@realDonaldTrump: Kim Jong Un of North Korea, who is obviously a madman who doesn’t mind starving or killing his people, will be tested like never before!
But what if the president has it all wrong and is just making the situation worse? Does Kim Jong Un, aka “Rocket Man,” really want war with the U.S.?
Experts who have dedicated their lives to this subject say no—it’s not so simple.
“I don’t think [Kim Jong Un] wants war…. I think he recognizes North Korea’s initiation of military force would be incredibly risky and likely to bring about the outcome he most wants to avoid, which is the end of his regime,” Robert Einhorn of the Brookings Institution tells Newsweek.
The North Korean leader’s belligerence is part of a “conscious strategy,” according to Einhorn.
“I think all of these practical steps to improve technical deterrent capabilities as well as these verbal outburst[s] are designed to…protect [North Korea] from what [Kim Jong Un] sees as U.S. intention to end this regime,” says Einhorn, who formerly advised the Obama administration on nonproliferation.
“Despite the appearance of irrationality, I think [Kim Jong Un] is a very rational actor,” Einhorn adds.
In this sense, the North Korean regime isn’t asking for war, it’s simply letting the world (specifically the U.S.) know it’s willing to put up a vicious fight to survive.
Making vague, exaggerated threats against the U.S. has long been part of North Korean strategy and predates Kim Jong Un, Scott Snyder, director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, tells Newsweek.
“The North Koreans are practiced at making statements that sound threatening that don’t lock them into particular courses of action,” he says. In other words, North Korea is well-versed in the art of the bluff.
Snyder is of the belief that North Korea’s behavior, albeit subversive to the existing world order and destabilizing to the surrounding region, is logical.
“I think the primary objective for Kim is to sustain his own survival,” he says. “Essentially, what Kim seems to be aiming for is reciprocity in the nuclear dimension after being exposed to the nuclear threat from the U.S.”
To put it another way, it’s estimated North Korea has around 60 nuclear weapons at most. It’s also still open to debate whether it could successfully arm a long-range missile (ICBM) with a warhead and strike the U.S. mainland. Comparatively, the U.S. has 6,800 warheads—the second-largest nuclear arsenal on the planet after Russia—and the most most powerful military in the world by far (with nuclear-capable ICBMs with a range of approximately 6,213 miles). North Korea, whose entire national identity is wrapped around portraying the U.S. as an evil, imperialistic entity, recognizes this and wants to catch up.
Moreover, even if North Korea has successfully developed a nuclear weapon that can reach the U.S., it’s aware the consequences of using it would be total destruction. It’s estimated the U.S. eliminated roughly 20 percent of the North Korean population during the Korean War (1950-53) via a relentless bombing campaign. This conflict might have faded from much of America’s memory, but North Korea hasn’t forgetten and it’s not looking for a sequel.
Therefore, North Korea’s recent behavior is part of a long, consistent trend linked to its natural desire to continue existing. There’s no question the advancements it has made in terms of military technology are concerning and present a challenge to the U.S. and its allies, but much of this has also been quite predictable.
Trump’s disposition, however, has left all parties involved quite dumbfounded. And it just might be what finally pushes North Korea to go beyond the point of no return.
“When Trump says ‘Rocket Man’ is on a suicide mission, that’s completely contrary to the conventional assessment of what the North Korean leader is up to,” says Snyder. “It’s almost as though Trump is baiting Kim into being entrapped into having to take a retaliatory action.”
Both Snyder and Einhorn agree Trump’s threat of extinction toward North Korea at the U.N. was especially unhelpful in this regard.
“This was unprecedented. This talk about totally destroying North Korea,” Einhorn says. “This is the type of language the North Koreans use—the hyperbole. It’s the type of language Iran uses when they talk about annihilating Israel. It’s not the type of language a U.S. president uses.”
It’s also entirely possible Trump’s combative statements could make things so tense that North Korea cracks under the pressure and agress to be more conciliatory, Snyder says. But this is the best-case scenario and not particularly likely.
The chances of North Korea giving up its nuclear program are “roughly the same of Elvis Presley walking in here right now,” retired Navy Admiral James Stavridis, the former supreme allied commander of NATO, said during a discussion at the University of Pennsylvania on Tuesday.
Indeed, there is no simple solution to the current state of affairs between the U.S. and North Korea, but it is widely agreed Kim Jong Un is not looking for war and Trump’s rhetoric is only exacerbating the situation and reinforcing the reclusive nation’s paranoia. Trump seems to be daring North Korea to preemptively pull the trigger, and the chances of it obliging appear to be increasing day by day.
“Risk of accidental or unintended conflict since Trump took office and North Korea upped testing pace is higher than in my lifetime,” Jon Wolfsthal, former senior director for arms control and nonproliferation at the National Security Council, recently tweeted. “[North Korea] knows they can’t win a fair fight and have every incentive to strike hard first with a nuke if they believe an attack is coming…. Trump has to dial it back. Threats don’t help.”