North Korea Threatens War As Trump Ups His Fiery, Irrational Rhetoric

Donald Trump's increasingly confrontational rhetoric regarding North Korea is leading to similar rhetoric from the DPRK, and concern among top diplomats.

Kim Jong Un North Korean Flag

With President Trump recently increasing the tone of his rhetoric regarding North Korea and its leader Kim Jong Un, tensions on the peninsula seem to be increasing:

North Korea threatened on Monday to shoot down American warplanes even if they are not in the country’s airspace, as its foreign minister declared that President Trump’s threatening comments about the country and its leadership were “a declaration of war.”

“The whole world should clearly remember it was the U.S. who first declared war on our country,” the foreign minister, Ri Yong-ho, told reporters as he was leaving the United Nations after a week of General Assembly meetings in New York.

“Since the United States declared war on our country, we will have every right to make countermeasures, including the right to shoot down United States strategic bombers even when they are not inside the airspace border of our country,” he said.

Within hours, the Trump administration pushed back on Mr. Ri’s assertions, with the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, telling a news briefing in Washington: “We have not declared war on North Korea.”

The last time North Korea shot down an American warplane was in 1969, during the Nixon Administration, killing all 31 crew members of a spy plane that was flying off its coast.

Today, North Korea’s ability to make good on its threat is limited. Its air force is outdated, undertrained and frequently short of fuel. But the threat signaled another major escalation in a rhetorical exchange that many fear could push Pyongyang and Washington into a conflict, even an unintended one.

Mr. Ri’s reference to the declaration of war appeared to refer to Mr. Trump’s assertion in a Twitter message over the weekend that the North Korean leadership may not “be around much longer” if it continues its threats.

Mr. Ri said that the question of “who would be around much longer will be answered” by North Korea.

It is possible that North Korea wanted to make clear that it, too, could threaten pre-emptive military action, just as the United States has repeatedly suggested in recent months.

But Mr. Trump’s tweet over the weekend appeared to go further, suggesting that mere threats, rather than a military attack, could drive him to wipe out the country. Whether that was one of his characteristic outbursts or a strategic effort to intimidate North Korea was not clear — even to some of his advisers.

The escalation of threats came two days after American warplanes flew close to the North’s coast, going farther north of the Demilitarized Zone — the dividing line between North and South — than any other American air mission in the past century. The Air Force advertised the exercise, which involved only American aircraft, as a direct response to North Korea’s accelerated missile launches and a nuclear test two weeks ago.

Mr. Ri, who is well connected to the country’s top leadership, also said last week that the North was considering conducting an atmospheric nuclear test, which would be the first by any nation in 37 years.

It is unclear whether the North is capable of pulling off such a test, which is far more complicated and dangerous than the underground testing it has done six times in the past 11 years. But a senior Trump administration official said over the weekend that the Pentagon and intelligence agencies were taking the threat seriously and beginning to devise possible responses — including pre-emptive military strikes — for the White House.

Mr. Ri’s remark about taking on American aircraft was new, and raised the possibility of a clash, even if a North Korean attack failed. He also said that “all options will be on the operations table of the supreme leadership” of North Korea.

Political analysts said the Trump administration should consider Mr. Ri’s comments more than just verbal volleys.

“I think they’re dangerously close to some kind of a conflict with North Korea,” said Jae H. Ku, the director of the U.S. Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.

“This is something I feared,” he said. “When we go down this road, our escalation could lead to accidental shootouts, and it may not be so accidental.”

The increasing acrimony also alarmed China, North Korea’s biggest trading partner, which strongly opposes the North’s missile and nuclear tests but has repeatedly urged de-escalation. “We want things to calm down,” China’s United Nations ambassador, Liu Jieyi, was quoted by Reuters as saying on Monday. “It’s getting too dangerous and it’s in nobody’s interest.”

North Korea had already deemed Mr. Trump’s threat at the United Nations — to “totally destroy” North Korea if the United States were forced to defend itself or its allies — a declaration of war.

The North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, said last week: “Now that Trump has denied the existence of and insulted me and my country in front of the eyes of the world and made the most ferocious declaration of a war in history that he would destroy the D.P.R.K. [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea], we will consider with seriousness exercising of a corresponding, highest level of hard-line countermeasure in history.”

These latest remarks from the DPRK come as analysts and diplomats are becoming concerned about the tone of Trump’s rhetoric and the direction it might push the ongoing diplomatic war with North Korea:

WASHINGTON — When President Trump gave a fiery campaign speech in Huntsville, Ala., on Friday evening, he drew a rapturous roar by ridiculing Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, as “Little Rocket Man.”

Among diplomats and national security specialists, the reaction was decidedly different. After Mr. Trump repeated his taunt in a tweet late Saturday and threatened that Mr. Kim and his foreign minister “won’t be around much longer” if they continue their invective against the United States, reactions ranged from nervous disbelief to sheer terror.

Mr. Trump’s willingness to casually threaten to annihilate a nuclear-armed foe was yet another reminder of the steep risks inherent in his brute-force approach to diplomacy. His strengths as a politician — the ability to appeal in a visceral way to the impulses of ordinary citizens — are a difficult fit for the meticulous calculations that his own advisers concede are crucial in dealing with Pyongyang.

The disconnect has led to a deep uncertainty about whether Mr. Trump is all talk or actually intends to act. The ambiguity could be strategic, part of an effort to intimidate Mr. Kim and keep him guessing. Or it could reflect a rash impulse by a leader with little foreign policy experience to vent his anger and stoke his supporters’ enthusiasm.

His new chief of staff and his national security team have drawn a line at trying to rein in his more incendiary provocations, fearing that their efforts could backfire with a president who bridles at any effort to control him. What remains unclear — and the source of much of the anxiety in and out of the government and on both sides of the Pacific — is whether they would step in to prevent the president from taking the kind of drastic action that matches his words, if they believed it was imminent.

Veterans of diplomacy and national security and specialists on North Korea fear that, whatever their intended result, Mr. Trump’s increasingly bellicose threats and public insults of the famously thin-skinned Mr. Kim could cause the United States to careen into a nuclear confrontation driven by personal animosity and bravado.

“It does matter, because you don’t want to get to a situation where North Korea fundamentally miscalculates that an attack is coming,” said Sue Mi Terry, a former intelligence and National Security Council specialist who is now a senior adviser for Korea at Bower Group Asia. “It could lead us to stumble into a war that nobody wants.”


Some senior administration officials acknowledge privately that Mr. Trump’s rhetoric on North Korea is not helpful, although they question whether it will alter the discussion, given how far Mr. Kim has come in his quest to develop a nuclear weapon that could reach the United States.

The three current and retired generals advising Mr. Trump — Jim Mattis, the defense secretary; Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, his national security adviser; and John F. Kelly, his chief of staff — as well as Rex W. Tillerson, the secretary of state, have all chosen their words on North Korea more carefully, emphasizing the role of diplomacy and the grave stakes of any military confrontation.

“All three of the generals fully realize the carnage that would result from a war on the Korean Peninsula,” James G. Stavridis, the former NATO commander and current dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, said on Sunday.

“Knowing each of them personally, I am certain they are counseling operational caution, measured public commentary and building a coalition approach to dealing with Kim Jong-un,” Mr. Stavridis, a retired admiral, said in an email. “But controlling President Trump seems incredibly difficult. Let’s hope they are not engaged in mission impossible, because the stakes are so high.”

Christopher R. Hill, a former ambassador to South Korea who served Republican and Democratic presidents, argued that the comments could badly undercut Mr. Trump’s ability to find a peaceful solution to the dispute, playing into Mr. Kim’s characterization of the United States as an evil nation bent on North Korea’s destruction and relieving pressure on the Chinese to do more to curb Pyongyang.

“The comments give the world the sense that he is increasingly unhinged and unreliable,” said Mr. Hill, the dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.

Many Trump allies and supporters have argued that Trump is behaving this way deliberately, both to present a message to North Korea that they’re dealing with a President who is taking a tougher line on the DPRK’s nuclear program than predecessors have and to send a message to China that the patience of the United States is wearing thin. Under this theory, supporters claim that Trump is simultaneously trying to create confusion in the minds of North Korean leaders and the Chinese regarding whether or not the United States might act unilaterally. The purpose of this rhetoric, then, would be to both spur the Chinese to act much more harshly against their putative allies in Pyongyang than they have in the past and to lead the North Koreans to be unclear about what our intentions might be.

This seems to be unlikely for two reasons.

First of all, at no point in the past has Trump demonstrated this kind of strategic thinking regarding any matter. Instead what we’ve seen from him has consisted of bluster and blind rage motivated largely by what he sees on Fox News Channel, reads on the Internet, or happens to retweet at a given point in time. We’ve seen it any number of times in his tweets and campaign speeches and, most recently, in his bizarre decision to pick a fight with N.F.L. players staging protests during the National Anthem. In all likelihood, that’s exactly what we’re seeing now with regard to North Korea, the difference is that, instead of a public fight that will likely gain him more support among his rabid base while at the same time confirming all the fears and doubts of his critics, the outcome when goading a regime clearly enveloped in a cycle of paranoia that seems to be in danger of lashing out at any time against either the United States or our allies in South Korea or Japan is clearly far more serious than whatever blowback Trump may face for criticizing Colin Kaepernick.

The second problem with this argument is that it doesn’t seem to have any basis in reality. Previous conflict and verbal warfare with the DPRK suggests strongly that rhetoric such as what we’re hearing from the President is more likely to cause them to become even more committed to their current course of action, and perhaps even to increase the pace and the tone of their own aggression in an effort to show that they aren’t intimidated by American rhetoric. Similarly, it’s not at all clear that rhetoric like this is going to cause the Chinese to become more willing to crack down on its putative client state or to take any action at all. As I’ve noted before, China’s primary concern with regard to North Korea clearly appears to be the fear that failing to prop up the Kim regime would lead to a collapse in authority in Pyongyang that would lead to the collapse of the state, and the prospect of South Korean and American forces moving in to take control of a chaotic situation. In other words, the Chinese are arguably more concerned about American troops at the Yalu River than they are with any dangers related to status quo on the peninsula. As long as that’s the case, they’re unlikely to do anything likely to bring about that collapse or to cause the North Koreans to lash out in a way that would make war likely.

As is always the case with both North Korea and Trump, it’s best to take this latest fiery rhetoric with a grain of salt. The DPRK has a long history of threatening rhetoric that it either clearly can’t follow through on, meant to stir up confusion and uncertainty for its own sake, or for purely domestic consumption. That, along with playing the ongoing game of rhetorical tit-for-tat that has been going on between Pyongyang and Trump for the better part of the year, is most likely what’s happening here. While they may appear to be crazy on the outside, it seems clear that the North Korean leadership is rational enough to know what the consequences of a first-strike of any kind would be, and that the DPRK would ultimately be fighting a war that it cannot possibly win. As a result, the idea that they’re serious about striking out against American warplanes that aren’t over their territory is one that’s hard to take seriously.

At the same time, one has to assume that the rationality is the same on the other side of the ball and that American leadership knows that even a limited strike against North Korea would be likely to expand into something far bigger. The danger is that this constant upping of the rhetoric on both sides of the DMZ poses the danger that one side or the other will feel as though they’ve been backed into a corner, and that one side or the other could feel like they’ve been backed into a corner. It’s not surprising that rhetoric from the President of the United States suggesting that he’s prepared to wipe the North Korean regime from the map has led to a similar uptick in rhetoric from North Korea, then. What’s worrisome is the idea that, at some point, someone could decide that merely responding rhetorically isn’t enough. At that point, we could find ourselves heading down a path toward a conflict that could end up being a disaster for all concerned parties.

FILED UNDER: National Security, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. CSK says:

    Well, we knew this would be the result of this asinine dick-measuring contest Trump insisted on initiating, didn’t we?

  2. MBunge says:

    I’m pretty sure it’s never a particularly great idea to gratuitously insult and aggravate a murderous dictator like the fat boy in North Korea.

    However, we are not where we are because of Donald Trump. We are where we are with North Korea because the experts, the diplomats, and the pundits not only sat around with their thumbs up their butts while kicking the NK problem down the road again and again for at least a quarter-century, the entire global foreign policy establishment has actually been pursuing a policy (integrating China into the world economy while not insisting they do anything about North Korea) that has actually made it harder to deal with the problem.

    Which doesn’t mean Trump isn’t going to be the bloody cherry on top of that fail sundae but since it’s likely that no result in North Korea is going to produce global armageddon, it’s important to recognize who really got us into this mess and what changes need to be made in the future.


  3. M. Bouffant says:

    The DPRK has a long history of threatening rhetoric that it either clearly can’t follow through on, meant to stir up confusion and uncertainty for its own sake, or for purely domestic consumption.

    Interesting to note that Trump & the DPRK are essentially the same.

  4. CSK says:

    @M. Bouffant:

    Yes, it is interesting. But given how much Kim and Trump have in common–both loud-mouthed, ignorant, authoritarian buffoons suffering from pathological insecurities–it’s hardly surprising.

  5. M. Bouffant says:

    @CSK: And don’t forget they both inherited everything from their fathers.

  6. CSK says:

    @M. Bouffant:

    indeed. And they both have ludicrous hair-dos.

  7. gVOR08 says:

    Trump and Kim have an opportunity to help each other here. Trump needs continuous bluster to keep his base happy and apparently Kim does too. If they’re smart, they can exchange insults to their hearts content and mutual political benefit. But this requires a certain amount of care, not actually doing anything too threatening and escalating slowly to allow the game to keep going. Kim might figure this out, but, like Doug, I don’t see Trump as bright enough.

  8. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    The threat that North Korea presents to our security cannot be overstated.

    Over the past 3 or 4 months, we have heard every one of Trump’s national security team repeat those or similar words on at least one occasion. Unfortunately, they are right about the North Korean Threat–but only because people keep on saying that the threat cannot be overstated. Wake up everybody–there aren’t any adults in the room anymore. Trump’s the smartest guy at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and we know how smart he is.

    Thirty-four years ago Mao Ze-dong launched an airborne test of a hydrogen bomb to show the world that they couldn’t tell him what to do. Chairman Kim is likely to do the same thing for the same reason; only he may not have the technology to pull it off. Even more important what are Trump and his band of sycophants and toadies going to do when it happens? And how much is it going to cost the world in misery destruction, grief, and heartache?

    And Bunge–I made the mistake of breaking my promise to not read what you write anymore. How about you go out for a nice cup of STFU?

  9. the Q says:

    Trump is an idiot, however, there is one positive thing he is doing amongst the insanity that should have been done long ago by Obama.

    I have business relationships in China and without doubt, Trump has gotten their attention on trade.

    I’ll give you a great example. I’ve been going to trade conventions for decades.

    The gov’t of China (the national gov’t, not provincial govt’s) has NEVER, and I mean NEVER had a presence at any trade fair. The Made in China or Chinese pavilions you see are organized by provincial or municipal entities Guangdong, Shenzhen etc.

    This year, for the first time ever at a World Trade Week event in DTLA, I saw the Chinese National gov’t sponsor a booth with a big banner of two hands shaking – each hand covered with the flag of of each nation with a caption “Trade benefits both nations” with stats underneath showing the number of jobs Chinese companies have created etc. etc.

    Trust me, this is unprecedented. They are scared schitless of this guy on trade. This was a blatant PR move to somehow put a positive spin on our half trillion dollar deficit with them.

    Many times, Chinese officials remarked to me, off the record of course, that the Chinese will do nothing to help the U.S. with N Korea as it serves their interests to have NoKo as a thorn in our side.

    We do the same with the Uighur issue in NW China. Google Uighur unrest/protest to see some of the terror attacks the Chinese have had to endure. Its in our interest to “encourage” the Uighur as we know it pi sses off the Chinese gov’t.

    Trump’s recent threat to impose tariffs on Chinese solar panel exports and other products will, I believe, force China to make a Jack Benny (radio and early TV superstar for you young people) type “your money or your stupid support of a madman” decision. Believe me, the Chinese love money and will sell out Un in a heartbeat.

    China has to be forced to stop supporting NK and so far we have made idle threats against the Chinese which buttresses their view that we are weak. Hence, zero cooperation with the US on NK.

    By pressuring the Chinese, NK will feel more and more isolated and perhaps more amenable to negotiation.

    Unfortunately, Trump has zero nuance and I believe is incapable of playing “good cop, bad cop” to get China’s attention, for in my opinion, collapsing China’s support for this lunatic is essential to solving this crises peacefully.

  10. wr says:

    @MBunge: “We are where we are with North Korea because the experts, the diplomats, and the pundits not only sat around with their thumbs up their butts while kicking the NK problem down the road again and again for at least a quarter-century,”

    And as usual… you know nothing about the subject you bloviate on, just reducing everything to a mush of “I’m the only smart one, everyone else is stupid.”

    Clinton made a deal with the NKs, and while not perfect, it stopped their nuclear program.

    George W. Bush decided they were to evil to deal with and he tore up the agreement.

    Shockingly, the NKs stopped living up to their side of the arrangement once the USA stopped doing what they promised. And now the Kim family regime has no reason to believe we will every keep our word about anything.

  11. michael reynolds says:

    The Options:
    1) Status quo
    2) More pressure still on China
    3) Decapitation strike.
    4) Conventional attack on nuclear facilities.
    5) Nuclear attack on same.
    6) Annihilation attack.

    Not one of those is good. Let’s throw out #6 because I’d like to think the military would mutiny if it came to that. Apply the ‘least-bad’ filter and they still all suck, but the option least likely to suck in a WW3 sort of way is #1: Status quo. Basically, deterrence, the thing we did with Stalin and Khrushchev and Mao.

    If the Kim regime falls, whether by coup or collapse or decapitation, the likely result will be a humanitarian catastrophe. North Korea has no food or fuel reserves, it has no waste to trim. If the regime falls, 25 million North Korean men, women and children will start getting hungry real fast. We evidently cannot manage to help 3 1/2 Americans on an island just off Miami, so I’m doubtful of our ability – especially given the NK infrastructure and absence of NGO’s or any robust institution – to keep those people from starving. And as far as stopping a descent into brigandage I’d point to Baghdad after Saddam. Multiply that many, many times.

    The South Koreans will want to move north for humanitarian reasons just as China will want to move south for a mix of military, economic and humanitarian reasons. The SK’s and presumably us going north, the Chicoms coming south. How could that possibly go wrong?

    And that’s the best case. The worst case is millions of North Koreans starving in between the radiation sickness. And then how many NGO’s will come rushing to help Mad Max Korea?

    Is it time to learn from Libya and Syria? Is it time to give Kim what he wants? A peace treaty, a vow of non-intervention, foreign aid in exchange for de-nuclearizing? Are we so sure the next government of North Korea would be an improvement?

  12. wr says:

    @the Q: Pretty impressive. You’ve been dealing with the Chinese for years, and it’s clear you have no idea how they think or do business. Good job!

  13. MarkedMan says:

    I’ll just reiterate what I’ve been saying since Trump became a serious candidate: Trump no doubt thinks (insofar as what he does can be called “thinking”) that a) we can kick NK’s ass and b) that even if a few nukes go off the radiation won’t affect the US. This is very dangerous thinking. Look at a map. If even one nuke goes off, dozens of cities with 1M people or more will have riots in the streets as they panic over the radiation cloud. That cloud will affect hundreds of millions of people, and will outrage billions more. in one fell swoop the US will go from being the 7 decade guarantor of nuclear safety to the most despised nation in the world. We will see long, long lasting economic damage like we have never felt, not even from the great depression. Think Germany after WWI.

    And that’s assuming that NK doesn’t invade SK, which is a first world country with over 50M souls. God help us all if that happens.

    Why isn’t China doing more? Because if US causes catastrophe in Asia, the entire continent will turn to the Chinese as the only power capable of standing up to the US. Their own people will rally behind the Chinese leadership as never before.

  14. JohnMcC says:

    One observation that is skirted about busily in all this that I hold in part of my thinking: This is what would be happening if Mr Trump has decided to provoke a hostile act that would excuse a real war.

    Another observation is that if Mr Trump should actually decide to launch U.S. nukes at NKorea and the Generals around him prevent this, how is this not simply the first step in a sequence that could be called a coup?

  15. Daryl's other brother, Daryll says:

    I was in Seattle late last week and reconnected with relatives I hadn’t seen in years.
    Great timing it seems.
    With the immature insecure imbecile with the bad hair taunting the other immature insecure imbecile with the bad hair it’s only a matter of time before my family, and the rest of the west coast, is showered with radiation.
    Dumb, dumb, dumb, Donnie…

  16. CET says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Is it time to give Kim what he wants? A peace treaty, a vow of non-intervention, foreign aid in exchange for de-nuclearizing? Are we so sure the next government of North Korea would be an improvement?

    I agree that it’s unlikely that whatever came after the Kim regime would be an improvement. The problem I see with this plan is that ‘de-nuclearization’ is not something Kim is ever likely to accept.

    My interpretation of the situation is that he sees nukes as being an iron-clad guarantee of non-intervention,** which seems to be the only major priority. As long as Kim can live in luxury as a god-emperor and the military stays loyal, who gives a sh*t if the peasants starve?

    **I think one of the major lessons of the last 30 or so years of US foreign policy is that our word is meaningless, especially when we tell a homicidal dictator that we’ll let him rule in peace.

  17. Tyrell says:

    This Kim Jong Un is a communist! For some reason nobody is saying that.

  18. michael reynolds says:

    I think a peace treaty and guarantee of non-intervention might do it for Kim. Obviously there’s no way to be sure but that has been the thrust of NK diplomacy. Kim’s survival is more assured with a treaty between US-NK-China-SK than by possession of nukes. Would Kim grasp that? I dunno.

  19. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Kim’s survival is more assured with a treaty between US-NK-China-SK than by possession of nukes.

    I would be more sanguine about your point if the continual position of NK was something other than “we will negotiate with the US, but no one else.” The whole game has been about getting the US to impose a settlement on all the other parties from very early on in the post-cease fire world.

    Additionally, I’m not sure that your point about security is actually true. How many agreements with governments have we broken over the past 30 or 40 years?

  20. the Q says:

    wr, coming from an idiot like you, I pay no attention.

  21. MarkedMan says:

    OK, I’m back to the “Tyrell is a massive troll” side. Using “troll” in its traditional sense of someone who assumes a position just to see what effect it has on the thread.