Korea 2017: ‘Rocketman’ Kim vs. ‘mentally deranged’ Trump

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Resorting to dialogue instead of provocation to resolve the North Korean crisis was what many had hoped for before Donald Trump took over as president of the United States. The hope was that having Trump in the White House could bring in more momentum to find a solution to the long-festering conflict, pitting the isolated regime in Pyongyang against much of the rest of the world. After all, Trump had said during the campaign trail that he could even imagine meeting Kim Jong Un in person.  

But it didn’t take long for these hopes to be quashed. Even before Trump moved into the Oval Office, he had given the world a taste of what was about to come during the course of the year. On January 3, Trump tweeted: “North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the US. It won’t happen!”

A successful year for N. Korea

Pyongyang, though, was not impressed by such warnings. In February, North Korea set off a rocket, marking the start of a series of launches.

Overall, the North fired over 20 missiles, including three intercontinental ones, and conducted its sixth nuclear test in 2017. Never before had the country conducted so many tests within a year.
Pyongyang’s state media outlets announced at the end of November that it had successfully completed its nuclear program.

“The North Korean leadership will be happy with its performance this year, as it has reached a strategic goal, which it had been striving to achieve for decades,” said Eric Ballbach of the Institute of Korean Studies at the Free University of Berlin. 

War of words

The year saw a fierce verbal onslaught between the US and North Korean leadership. Pyongyang has been widely known for its belligerent rhetoric, especially targeting South Korea and the US. But what is new is the US president reciprocating in kind. For instance, when the North said on July 4 – the US Independence Day – that it had successfully carried out an ICBM test, Trump responded on Twitter: “North Korea has just launched another missile. Does this guy have anything better to do with his life? Hard to believe that South Korea…..”

Kim then taunted Trump, noting that the test was a “gift” to “American bastards” on their Independence Day.

After North Korea tested a second ICBM at the end of July, Trump indirectly threatened to use military force, saying that if the country continued its provocations, they would be met with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” The North reacted by saying that it wouldn’t be possible to engage in a dialogue with Trump. Furthermore, it threatened to launch missiles toward the US territory of Guam, where thousands of US soldiers are stationed. 

A hot autumn

The war of words escalated further in September. In his first address to the United Nations, Trump chose dramatic words, saying that the “little rocket man” was on a suicide mission. Then the US leader issued a threat to “totally destroy” North Korea, should the country not give in. Kim replied two days later: “I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged US dotard with fire.”

North Korea views this truculent rhetoric as both an affront and a blessing at the same time, said Eric Ballbach. “On the one hand, personal attacks on leadership in any authoritarian country are an absolute no-go.

But on the other hand, this rhetoric provides the North Koreans with exactly what they want,” the expert noted, explaining that even a country as authoritarian as North Korea has to convince its own people of the legitimacy and necessity of its expensive and resource-intensive nuclear program. “This requires a genuine threat from the outside,” he said.

Moreover, the fact that there are no official talks between the two sides carries very specific risks, as it increases the likelihood of miscalculations, Ballbach pointed out.

“We had in 2017 the largest ever joint US-South Korean military exercises as well as the highest number of North Korean missile tests. Given that there are barely any open channels of communication left, the situation could easily lead to misinterpretations, which may even result in a military confrontation.”

The Korean dilemma

Nevertheless, observers believe the current state of affairs presents an opportunity to initiate a new round of talks. “Ironically, the current situation offers a good chance for both sides to engage in talks. Also, the fact that North Koreans emphasizing they have successfully concluded their nuclear program could allow them to refrain from holding further testing in the near future,” said Ballbach.

South Korea, meanwhile, hopes that the situation in the region will remain calm in the coming months. The country is hosting the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in February and wants to avoid any disturbances that could disrupt the smooth conduct of the major international sporting event. Any North Korean missile or nuclear tests during this time would be the ultimate provocation.