Credit: U.S. Missile Defense Agency/Flickr

“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.”

It was no surprise to learn that Donald Trump, aping the style usually left to North Korea’s leaders, made these apocalyptic remarks off the top of his head, which left National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson—who still does not have an appointed assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs working for him—tip-toeing between pleasing their oppressive boss and tamping down the possibility of a Second Korean War. 

It should have been surprising to no one when North Korea responded to Trump’s statement with an even more extreme one. Per The New York Times:

The North Korean military dismissed Mr. Trump’s fire-and-fury warning on Tuesday as a “load of nonsense” and said only “absolute force” would work on someone so “bereft of reason.” The military threatened to “turn the U.S. mainland into the theater of a nuclear war” and added that any American strike on North Korean missile and nuclear targets would be “mercilessly repelled.”

The statement also said that the North Korean military would finalize a plan by mid-August to fire four midrange missiles into the waters off the Pacific island of Guam, a United States territory used as a strategic base, to create a “historic enveloping fire.”

It’s standard practice by North Korea to put the bomb in bombast. After George W. Bush labelled it a member of the “axis of evil,” Pyongyang responded that it “will never tolerate the U.S. reckless attempt to stifle the (North) by force of arms but mercilessly wipe out the aggressors.” In 2011 it threatened to turn South Korea’s capital into a “sea of fire,” a nearly word-for-word copy of a threat made in 1994.

But, rhetorically, there’s no further North Korea can go than threatening to turn North America into a nuclear winter wonderland. To then tie that most extreme rhetoric to the specific threat of merely (by comparison) splashing four missiles into the Pacific Ocean around a US naval base nowhere near any other populated areas is a sign that North Korea is attempting to play a similar blackmail game as it has in the past. It does not want war and can tone it down—for the right price: probably a suspension of U.S.-South Korean joint exercises and maybe an easing of sanctions.

This is a risky game of signaling and subtext that no president can manage unaided. But this will be a game almost entirely left to Trump’s cabinet secretaries and more experienced national security staff. There is no reason to believe that Trump, who appears to suffer from acute literal-mindedness and is demonstrably bereft of any working knowledge of how the U.S. government functions during these situations, can grasp the complexity and nuances of the situation—he could not, remember, understand a comparatively simple situation in Australia.

In particular, the administration will need to work around two axioms that appear to be lodged in Trump’s mind: that North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un is a madman and the U.S. military is ready for any eventuality. As Andrei Lankov, one of the world’s foremost experts on North Korea, recently wrote for Foreign Policy:

North Korea’s system might look bizarre to us from the outside, but the Kims are the ultimate political survivors, hard-edged rationalists whose actions have always had a clear purpose: keeping the family in power. Seeing them as madmen is not only wrong, but also dangerous; any successful policy should be based on understanding the logic of the opposite side, not on discarding it as “irrational.” Seeing the Kim family as lunatics with nukes makes them more threatening, and raises the risk of war…

Kim Jong Un is a tyrant, the godhead of a regime based on Orwellian violence and terror. And as any reader of Orwell knows, a necessary condition of survival for such a regime is to keep its subjects in a constant state of imminent war. But an actual war, the Kims have actively avoided. Lankov again:

Kim Jong Un sees the nuclear program as purely defensive. Conquering the South would be nice in theory, but this task is completely beyond his reach, both due to the U.S. commitment to protecting South Korea and Seoul’s own huge advantage…However, he also presumes that no great power would risk attacking a nuclear state or sticking a hand into its internal strife…And so North Korean leaders are determined to stick to their nuclear development, and see nuclear weapons as the major guarantee of their security. There is no form of pressure that can convince them to budge on this…That’s a disaster for the region, but a perfectly logical choice by the Kim family.

It’s a disaster that cannot be met with military force. Eliot Cohen, a conservative foreign policy scholar and practitioner, put it plainly:

The United States is simply not ready for a war in Korea, even if one were the lesser of two evils. It is not ready for wartime diplomacy to manage fearful or furious allies, let alone the Chinese and the Russians. The Department of State does not even have a nominee for the position of assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and its secretary presides over a demoralized and shrinking corps of diplomats. The American military may have the aircraft to hammer North Korean nuclear sites, but it is also fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, and returning to Europe to bolster deterrence there. The armed services have suffered years of sequester-imposed spending freezes that mean that they have not refurbished their arsenals or engaged in adequate training.

North Korea can be deterred and contained. The only way that works is if U.S. leadership communicates clearly without boxing themselves into a corner. But both Trump and those administration officials most responsible for navigating the country out of the crisis have already needlessly put themselves in an uncomfortable situation. On August 5, about a week after North Korea successfully launched a second ICBM, McMaster said, “The president’s been very clear about it. He said he’s not gonna tolerate North Korea being able to threaten the United States. If they have nuclear weapons that can threaten the United States, it’s intolerable from the president’s perspective. So of course, we have to provide all options to do that. And that includes a military option.”

Well, tolerate he must because North Korea claims it has engineered a nuclear bomb to fit inside its missiles. The nameless U.S. analysts that newspaper reporters cite are skeptical, but on July 3 those same analysts didn’t believe North Korea was anywhere close to a fully capable ICBM.

Trump’s “fire and fury” quote came three days after McMaster’s. This, supposedly, moved Trump’s red line from North Korea having the capability to launch a nuclear-tipped missile at the U.S. to merely any threat from North Korea. The North Koreans called Trump’s bluff with their “turn the U.S. mainland into the theater of a nuclear war” statement. Last I checked, no U.S. warplanes are on their way to bombing Pyongyang. But better the casualty be American leadership’s already flimsy credibility.

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Joshua Alvarez is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal. He edits syndicated opinion columns at the Washington Post, and can be reached at joshuaalvarezmail@gmail.com.