Donald Trump’s saber-rattling towards North Korea has heated up as North Korea is getting closer and closer to having an operational intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of striking the United States mainland.

This afternoon, he threatened “fire and fury” against Kim Jong-un’s thiefdom.

North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. He has been very threatening — beyond a normal statement. As I said, they will be met with fire, fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.

Notice, too, that Trump’s strong words were made specifically in response to “threats” by Kim Jong-un and his government. North Korea makes farcical threats all the time. In 2013, years before he had the capabilities to hit even Los Angeles, Kim made a threat to attack Austin, Texas, of all places.

That Trump issued such fiery words in response to “threats” rather than anything of substance indicates his strange obsession with honor politics. He is a man whose argument for pulling out of deals is that “the world is laughing at us.” He took Cuban President Raul Castro’s absence at Obama’s arrival to Cuba as an insult to the United States.

North Korea, of course, poses some very real threats to the U.S. and its allies. It tested two ICBMs in July, prompting new UN sanctions, and a U.S. intelligence assessment holds that it has attained the capability of putting warheads on missiles.

But North Korea’s threat is just why Trump needs to be careful: hasty responses could cause miscalculation and could result in a war that would leave millions dead. Even without the use of nuclear weapons, 20 million civilians in the Seoul area and 28,500 American troops in Korea are at immediate threat of heavy artillery.

American hawks are particularly scared now that North Korea is getting closer to be able to strike their homeland, but do they care about the South Koreans they might put at risk? Moreover, deterrence has worked well for America for decades, and it is counterproductive for the Leader of the Free World to act like a scared, easily-triggered loose cannon, rather than the leader of the strong country the U.S. is. The U.S. can be confident that if a war breaks out, it will win. It is Kim Jong-un who has more to fear in a war, thus one reason why he acts as he does.

(As Dani Nedal and Daniel Nexon wrote in Foreign Policy, “Trump might make more sense if he were North Korea’s leader, not America’s … North Korea certainly derives some benefit from the common perception that its leaders are crazy. … But the United States, in this scenario, is one of the big kids on the schoolyard. … Thus, for the United States, unpredictability carries enormous risks. “)

Trump has made a lot of “crazy” statements, too. Those really fall into two buckets: statements where he might have consciously been trying to scare an adversary by being a “madman” and those where he has no idea about facts or rational policy (in the economic sphere, you have him claiming he invented the concept of “priming the pump”).

On North Korea, Trump is on record of saying in January a missile test “won’t happen,” in April that China would get North Korea under control or, “If not, we will solve the problem,” and many other trumped up words. Over the Kim Il-sung birthday celebration in April, when tensions were also at a high point, Trump revealed the problem with his constant threats when he stated that an “armada” was on the way to the Korean peninsula that was actually sailing in the opposite direction and didn’t arrive in time.

After being exposed hyping and lying, would North Korea trust the U.S. the next time? Would Syria, Iran, Russia, and others? What happens if North Korea doesn’t trust the U.S. and crosses a red line?

There are only two things that can come of Trump’s threat to respond with “power the likes of which this world has never seen before”:
1.) Trump is bluffing, and he doesn’t start a nuclear war with North Korea. Many lives are initially saved, but America’s credibility is damaged, causing North Korea to push forward with its nuclear weapons program and raising the risk of war later.
2.) Trump does incite a nuclear war on the Korean peninsula.

Feature photo by Kim Wing summialo. Imitators dress as Trump and Kim Jongun at Victoria Park in Hong Kong in January 2017.

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