North Korea is likely to fire more missiles after Trump’s speech, experts say
By ANNA FIFIELD | The Washington Post | Published: September 20, 2017
TOKYO — Kim Jong Un's regime tells the North Korean people every day that the United States wants to destroy them and their country. Now, they will hear it from another source: from the president of the United States himself.
In his maiden address to the United Nations on Tuesday, President Donald Trump threatened to "totally destroy North Korea." Analysts noted that he didn't even differentiate between the Kim regime, as President George W. Bush did with his infamous "axis of evil" speech, and the 25 million people of North Korea.
"President Trump has handed the North Koreans the soundbite of the century," said Marcus Noland of the Peterson Institute for International Economics and one of the authors of its "North Korea: Witness to Transformation" blog. "That footage will be used time and time and time again on North Korea's state television channel."
Since the Korean War ended in an armistice in 1953, the Kim regime has portrayed the United States as an "imperialist aggressor" pursuing to "hostile policy" to crush North Korea. To keep control of and unify the populace, the regime has kept alive the memories of the Korean War, when the U.S. destroyed 80 percent of all the buildings in the North and killed as many as 20 percent of its people.
North Korea's streets and airwaves are filled with calls to resist the American imperialists, and from a young age children watch cartoons showing squirrels and hedgehogs (North Koreans) fighting off evil wolves (the United States).
The "threat" from the United States is the whole reason why North Korea needs nuclear weapons, the regime tells the people, while denying them access to the Internet or any other outside information.
"The Kim regime argues that only it is capable of protecting the country from the existential threat North Korea faces from 'hostile foreign forces' led by the United States," Noland said. "All of the depravity and the denial of rights is all justified by this."
Trump's words feed right into that narrative, analysts say.
"This will reinforce the leadership's position that the United States is hostile to North Korea," said Jung H. Pak, chair of Korea studies at the Brookings Institution. "This is exactly what North Korea is talking about, and [Trump] said it right there on TV in front of the whole world."
Furthermore, Trump's "demonizing" of Kim personally would inflame the situation, she said.
At the U.N., Trump referred to the 33-year-old North Korean leader as "Rocket Man," a moniker the president had used on Twitter two days earlier.
Directing criticism at the Kims is heretical for a regime that has created an all-encompassing personality cults around the leaders, turning them into deities.
Previous attacks on Kim Jong Un personally have elicited an outsized response from North Korea's apparatchiks. When a U.N. commission of inquiry recommended that Kim be indicted in the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, North Korea's usually recalcitrant representatives at the U.N. strongly protested and even attended conferences to defend their leader.
"This slander against the supreme leader in front of an international audience that is going to cause the Foreign Ministry to have to leap to the defense of Kim, whether or not Kim orders it," said Robert Carlin, a former CIA analyst on North Korea who remains a close reader of its statements.
Tuesday's speech comes on top of Trump's previous warnings that Kim will feel the full "fire and fury" of the United States and that the United States was "locked and loaded." These sentiments have been echoed, although in more nuanced terms by the generals around the president, who have repeatedly said that they have military options for dealing with North Korea, even if they would have "horrific" consequences.
If Trump's words are aimed at calling Kim's bluff and forcing him to stand down, they will almost certainly backfire.
"His speech could give Pyongyang an excuse or incentive to redouble its nuclear and missile development, which means more testing," said Duyeon Kim, visiting senior fellow at Korean Peninsula Future Forum in Seoul.
The whole rationale of deterrence is to convince the opponent not to carry out an intended action because the costs outweigh their benefits, Kim said. The question now is whether the Kim regime, which is struggling to interpret Trump's unconventional style, considers the threat real.
"Pyongyang might interpret his bluster as credible and work harder on its nuclear weapons," she said. "Or, Pyongyang might laugh and not take his warnings seriously, which is also a big problem too. We just don't know for sure."
North Korea is, however, likely to glean one clear message from Trump's speech, analysts said: there's no point signing a denuclearization deal with the president because he won't honor it.
Trump called the international nuclear deal with Iran an "embarrassment" and "one of the worst and most one-sided" agreements ever forged. He strongly hinted that his administration would soon back out of the deal with Iran's "murderous regime."
"His trashing of the Iran nuclear deal will raise warning signs for North Korea," said Pak of Brookings. "This is not going to get them to talk if the U.S. is just going to tear it up."
Instead, North Korea would likely just wait out Trump, she said. "They think in terms of dynasties, and they know that we think in terms of electoral cycles."