Donald Trump’s threat to retaliate against North Korean provocations with “fire and fury like the world has never seen” spread tremors around the globe, elevating fears that the U.S. President is prepared to authorize military action against a nuclear-equipped hostile regime.
But in at least one place, Mr. Trump’s incendiary turn of phrase had a very familiar ring: Pyongyang, the object of his wrath.
Its state media refer to “war” thousands of times a year. Its officials have threatened to turn the Korean Peninsula to ash and, in language surprisingly similar to that now employed by Mr. Trump, pledged to rain a “sea of fire” on Tokyo and Seoul if provoked.
“Mr. Trump has obviously secretly attended a workshop for aspiring diplomats in Pyongyang,” said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, “because he is saying exactly what we have heard from North Korea for decades.”
And that, he said, offers a clue to how the presidential bombast should be heard.
The first rule for the world’s reigning champion of outlandish rhetoric, after all, is to “make threats you are not going to carry through.”
Hearing words in that vein from a U.S. President, however, raised fears around the world, although U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Wednesday sought to cast them in a more positive light.
“I think what the President was doing was sending a strong message to North Korea in language that [North Korean leader] Kim Jong-un would understand, because he doesn’t seem to understand diplomatic language,” Mr. Tillerson said.
North Korea’s response: “Sound dialogue is not possible with such a guy bereft of reason and only absolute force can work on him,” said General Kim Rak-gyom, head of the country’s rocket command, according to state media. Then he outlined plans for a military action North Korea is “about to take,” with a barrage of missiles directed at waters near Guam, the U.S. Pacific territory.
For more than 60 years, the fraught international relationship with North Korea has produced murders, a sunk ship and downed airliner, acts of terrorism and repeated cycles of extreme drama – but, with only a few exceptions, little actual exchange of fire.
The long-simmering dispute between North Korea and its neighbours and rivals has, instead, been one waged largely with words, often heated.
It’s what Lu Chao, director of the Border Study Institute at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences in Shenyang, China, calls “yelling at each other through the air.”
On the U.S. side, the baldness of Mr. Trump’s “fire and fury” comment goes a large step beyond any that historians can recall from an American leader toward North Korea.
But it is far from the first angry language directed at the defiant regime. Former president George W. Bush famously included it in the “axis of evil.” Former CIA director James Woolsey verbally placed it in a “devil’s brew” of countries “engaged directly and indirectly in terrorism.”
Still, most U.S. leaders have sought to respond with calm in the face of North Korea’s provocations, a record of decades of raging insults with few equals in modern diplomacy. The country’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) has lashed out at “imperialist ogres,” called the United States the “kingpin of evil,” labelled a succession of American leaders “human scum,” mocked South Koreans as “puppets” and derided the Japanese as “political dwarfs.” It responded with blind rage when the United States deemed it a terrorist state.
“This is absolute baloney, reversing black and white,” the news organization wrote in 1993.
Its threats of war, meanwhile, are so commonplace as to be almost banal. “It is our unswerving position and will to answer the sword of the enemy with sword, a total war with a total war,” KCNA wrote in 1997.
Not surprisingly, such language has made the regime the object of mockery.
One online North Korean-style random insult generator yields results such as, “You extra-large political dwarf!”
Satirical Twitter account @DPRK_News, meanwhile, has created punch lines that hit so close they are sometimes wrongly cited as legitimate. One of its most recent zingers: “Orange-faced oaf Donald Trump threatens DPRK with ‘fire and fury,’ yet delivers only wind and flatulence.”
Bellicose talk is as old as North Korea itself.
“Even during the early 1950s, when North Koreans were prisoners of war, guarded by American soldiers, they had fantasies of crushing their captors with huge T-34 tanks, and made forbidden cartoons to prove it,” said Adam Cathcart, a lecturer at Britain’s University of Leeds who is founder and editor of online publication Sino-NK.
“It is a small country that survives in part by inflating itself rhetorically and remaining permanently on a level of discourse toward the enemy that is substantively little different from Soviet propaganda against Nazi Germany after 1941.”
But what once prompted laughter is producing fewer giggles today, with North Korea’s words backed by a small arsenal of nuclear weapons, some of them now believed compact enough to install on an intercontinental ballistic missile that could strike North America.
“The tone of the yelling has become very different from the past,” Prof. Lu said. It has become “more substantively threatening” and “if it continues to intensify, we cannot say that there is no possibility of triggering conflict in the region.”
In the United States, critics called Mr. Trump’s wording unhelpful, at best. “Reckless rhetoric is not a strategy to keep America safe,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat.
Instead, others in the Trump administration kept up the President’s strident tone.
North Korea should “cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people,” warned Defence Secretary Jim Mattis on Wednesday.
It’s not clear, however, that those words will have the intended effect.
Indeed, the opposite is possible.
“North Korea will view the language as justification for its own pre-emptive language, as well as any potential forthcoming weapons tests,” said Chad O’Carroll, managing director of Korea Risk Group, a consultancy and research firm that closely tracks North Korea.
“Further medium- or long-range ballistic missile tests, nuclear-weapons detonations, widespread cyberattacks or exchanges of fire … can be expected,” he said.
That said, North Korea may appreciate Mr. Trump’s unvarnished talk.
“This might even create a little bit of clarity: ‘He’s angry just like we’re angry. We’re two angry people.’ North Koreans can understand that,” said Jasper Kim, director of the Center for Conflict Management at Ewha Womans University’s Graduate School of International Studies in Seoul.
That possibility, though, offers small comfort. Mr. Trump and North Korea have become “two bullies in the playground who both have something to prove, and that can be a very dangerous recipe,” Prof. Kim said.
“The question is, will this sabre-rattling by both sides lead to the first major accidental war of the 21st century in northeast Asia?”
On Wednesday, he browsed websites with instructions on how to prepare for evacuation. “I’ve never done that very seriously until today,” he said.
“For the first time, I am scared,” he added. “Seoul is probably one of the last cities on the planet you want to be in right now.”
BEIJING — The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Aug. 09, 2017 9:14AM EDT
Last updated Wednesday, Aug. 09, 2017 9:53PM EDT