Opinion

Could loose talk (and tweets) cause a war in Korea?

One of the reasons the Los Angeles Times editorial board found the prospect of Donald Trump in the White House so alarming was that he showed himself as a candidate to be impulsive and easily provoked.

This weekend North Korea is likely to test Trump’s self-control — and not just when it comes to his Twitter feed.

As Barbara Demick explains in today’s Times, Saturday is the 105th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, the founder of the Communist state and the grandfather of the current leader, Kim Jong Un. It’s expected that the North will mark the anniversary with either another nuclear test or another test of a short- or medium-range missile. (Military analysts believe an intercontinental ballistic missile isn’t ready for testing.)

Trump has tweeted about North Korea several times this week. On Tuesday he declared ominously that “North Korea is looking for trouble. If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them! U.S.A.” On Wednesday he seemed more upbeat, tweeting: “Had a very good call last night with the President of China concerning the menace of North Korea.” But on Thursday he was hedging his bets: “I have great confidence that China will properly deal with North Korea. If they are unable to do so, the U.S., with its allies, will! U.S.A.”

But the loose talk wasn’t confined to Trump’s Twitter timeline. On Thursday, NBC reported that “multiple senior U.S. intelligence officials” had said that the U.S. was prepared “to launch a preemptive strike with conventional weapons against North Korea should officials become convinced that North Korea is about to follow through with a nuclear weapons test.” (A senior Trump administration official told Reuters that that the NBC report was “flat wrong.”)

And almost a month ago, on a swing through Asia, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seemed to suggest that the U.S. was considering a preemptive strike against North Korea. He said that military action was an option not only if North Korea threatened South Korea or U.S. forces but also if “they elevate the threat of their weapons program to a level that we believe requires action.”

Trump’s tweets this week, and leaks suggesting that a preemptive strike is under consideration, create the expectation that the U.S. must respond immediately and dramatically to the next North Korean nuclear test or missile launch or else lose credibility. The result, as former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said Friday, is to create a “higher volume in terms of the provocations that are going on.”

Trump and Tillerson have every right to be exasperated at North Korea and to try to reshape U.S. policy on the Korean peninsula. But vague threats and loose talk, especially from the president of the United States, aren’t the way to make policy or keep the peace. As Panetta said: "We have the potential for a nuclear war that would take millions of lives. So I think we have got to exercise some care here."

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