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Why Trump’s North Korea Threat Matters

President Trump announcing a troop surge in Afghanistan (WhiteHouse.gov)

Ankit Panda explains why Trump’s irresponsible North Korea rhetoric was unusually worrisome:

Most importantly, however, it’s impossible to make sense of Trump’s threat without considering that second sentence, which implied that Kim—the “Rocket Man”—is on “a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.” The concept of suicide, when applied to nation-states and regimes, comes with a strong implication: That they do not seek survival above all else. Extending that reasoning, a nation-state that does not seek survival but instead seeks suicide cannot be deterred with threats of total destruction. If Kim Jong Un is indeed “suicidal” in his pursuit of nuclear weapons and missiles, he is presumably irrational and, as a result, cannot be deterred.

Trump’s advisors have also intimated that Kim may be similarly irrational. H.R. McMaster, his national security advisor, recently argued that his brutality meant that “classical deterrence theory” didn’t apply to him—never mind that Mao Zedong’s China and the Soviet Union were similarly repressive and characterized as rogue, unstable regimes. Nevertheless, they were deterred.

Combined with Trump’s insistence that North Korea must accept denuclearization as the only acceptable outcome, this assumption that North Korea cannot be deterred suggests that the Trump administration is contemplating an attack aimed at eliminating the regime. If Trump is already inclined to see North Korea’s leadership as suicidal, his National Security Advisor is doing nothing to dissuade him. The notable thing about McMaster’s August statement was how shoddy the reasoning behind it was. McMaster listed a number of horrible things that the regime does in its own country, and then concluded that North Korea couldn’t be deterred from launching an attack. I concluded at the time:

Aside from the worrisome echoes of the Bush administration’s pre-invasion rhetoric about the Iraqi government, the alarming thing about this statement is that Trump’s National Security Advisor either doesn’t understand how deterrence works or is flatly lying to the public about the nature of the threat in order to lay the groundwork for launching an illegal and disastrous attack.

In the last week, McMaster also said that “there is a military option” in North Korea, but it is clear that any such option would result in unthinkable catastrophe for South Korea and probably for Japan and the U.S. as well. McMaster must know this, so why mention an option that no sane person would use? The Trump administration is simultaneously exaggerating the threat posed by North Korea while minimizing the very high costs that a war with them would involve, and in the process it is giving the regime in Pyongyang every reason to continue building and developing its nuclear arsenal and missile programs. Panda concurs:

Both McMaster and Trump are wrong about the Rocket Man. He tests his missiles for entirely rational reasons. Not only does he seek survival above all—that’s his entire reason for building a nuclear arsenal in the first place.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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