In Trump's war of words with North Korea, de-escalation is still an option

It might turn out to be all smoke, no "fire and fury." One way or another, experts say America's best way forward after U.S. President Donald Trump's extraordinary warning to North Korea is to dial back the apocalyptic language and reopen communication.

Facing Pyongyang's bluster, 'most presidents don't rise to the bait of responding. Trump did'

Left: U.S. President Donald Trump. Centre: What is described as the launch of a Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile at an undisclosed location in North Korea. Right: North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press, Korean Central News Agency/Reuters)

So far, it's been all smoke, no "fire and fury."

Foreign-policy experts watching the fraught situation between the United States and North Korea hope it stays that way, after U.S. President Donald Trump's bombastic warning to North Korea over its nuclear provocations.

America's best course forward, they say, is to dial back the apocalyptic language, boost pressure on Beijing and Moscow to bolster economic sanctions against Pyongyang, and reopen communication links.

In short: De-escalate.

"And it needs to be done immediately," said former U.S. State Department senior analyst Stephen Noerper, who teaches at Columbia University and specializes in U.S. diplomacy in the Korean Peninsula.

"There's no point in the United States trying to match North Korea rhetorically. The U.S. should be operating from a position of strength and moral authority, which is not reflected in hostile words."

His arms crossed, Trump delivered a statement on Tuesday extraordinary in its tone regarding the isolated kingdom that has challenged the U.S. with its missile tests.

The ultimate fear is a nuclear-capable Pyongyang with missiles that can reach the U.S. mainland.

"North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States," Trump said from his golf resort in Bedminster, N.J. "They will be met with the fire and the fury like the world has never seen."

That "fire and fury" line was reportedly improvised, but Noerper said dealing with Pyongyang on the fly — particularly employing such hawkish language — could be "exceedingly dangerous" once Trump's words are filtered down to the North Korean public.

Citizens in the isolated regime aren't as familiar with Trump's habit of making not-to-be-taken-literally declarations, but this statement could play right into the regime's propaganda machine.

"The problem is the North Koreans will understand it bluntly, and respond bluntly," Noerper said, potentially leading to an "asymmetrical reality" in which the U.S. is pulled into a head-to-head conflict with a dangerous but much smaller and insecure adversary.

Often known as the "land of lousy options" for how it has frustrated diplomats, North Korea remains a nuclear no-go region for the U.S., due in part to its proximity to American allies Japan and South Korea, where some 30,000 U.S. service members are based.

Kim reacts with scientists and technicians after the test launch of the intercontinental ballistic missile Hwasong-14 in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency in Pyongyang on July, 5. (KCNA/Reuters)

"The U.S. knows that if it were to attack North Korea, Pyongang would bomb Seoul or shoot missiles at Tokyo, and that would bring disaster to the entire region," said Lisa Collins, a fellow in the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

North Korea announced on Tuesday night that it was examining plans to attack Guam, hours after Trump's remarks and following the flight of US B-1 bombers over the Korean Peninsula last month. About 165,000 American citizens live on the island of Guam, the most western part of the territorial U.S.

'Sleep well'

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reassured Americans they should "sleep well" knowing the rhetoric would not put lives at risk. Within hours on Wednesday, Defence Secretary James Mattis released an aggressive statement reiterating that North Korea's actions could lead to the "destruction of its people" and "the end of its regime."

It was the kind of assertive messaging that balanced U.S. resolve to "deter, defend, and if necessary defeat" opponents such as North Korea with "measured" language that doesn't unnecesarily torque tensions, said Bruce Klingner, a senior fellow specializing in Korean affairs at The Heritage Foundation.

Derek Chollet, a former Pentagon official and defence adviser during the Obama administration, read Mattis's statement as "an appropriate statement of deterrence," owing to its stress on diplomatic efforts to resolve the standoff.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gives an opening statement during a meeting of the Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum in Manila on Aug. 6. He now urges calm and says Americans should have 'no concerns' despite the exchange of threats between Trump and North Korea. (Erik De Castro/Reuters)

Reminding North Korea of America's military capabilities is a common response to ramped-up tensions.

De-escalation could depend on whether the president's words derail ongoing diplomatic processes, said Chollet, the senior adviser for security and defence policy at the nonpartisan German Marshall Fund of the United States.

"North Korea has shown that at least rhetorically, it always wants to have the last word," he said. "Most presidents don't rise to the bait of responding. Trump did."

Building a stronger diplomatic coalition against North Korea by coaxing China to rein in its ally could also help.

"What we saw over the weekend was positive," Chollet said, pointing to Beijing's recent vote in favour of United Nations sanctions against North Korea.

"The question is whether China will do what's necessary to enforce these sanctions sufficiently."

War breaking out on China's doorstep could force hundreds of thousands of North Koreans to overwhelm its borders.

U.S. Navy vessels are moored in port at Naval Base Guam at Apra Harbor in March 2016. North Korea's army has said it is studying a plan to create an 'enveloping fire' in areas around Guam, a U.S. territory about 3,400 kilometres away, with medium- to long-range ballistic missiles. (Reuters)

For now, Noerper said, one helpful diplomatic measure would be to reopen the only official channel of communications between North Korea and the U.S., the so-called "New York channel" operating through UN missions, that was severed in July 2016.

Communication now flows almost exclusively through public statements and media.

While communication lines could be reopened easily, the catch is that it was the North Koreans who cut those lines in the first place, angered by U.S. pursuit of special sanctions and by leader Kim Jong-un being criticized for human-rights abuses, said former Treasury Department official Anthony Ruggiero, now a sanctions expert at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies.

"Certainly the U.S. should provide private messages to North Korea. They probably won't like them, since they're going to detail the kinds of sanctions that are coming," he said. "But we can't talk to ourselves."

U.S. President Donald Trump warns on Tuesday of 'fire and fury like the world has never seen' if North Korea makes more threats against the U.S. On Wednesday, he said his first order as president had been to 'renovate and modernize' the U.S. nuclear arsenal. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Similarly, the Seoul–Pyongyang military hotlines allowing the two Koreas to communicate directly have ceased being useful.

"It's more a case of the North Koreans not picking up the phone," Klingner said.

If nothing else, Collins said, the more communication that can be opened, the greater the possibility of reducing  the potential for escalation of a conflict through miscommunication or miscalculation.

Still, the exchange of rhetoric over the last 36 hours is unlikely to dramatically alter a dangerous dynamic involving nuclear catastrophe on the Korean Peninsula.

'I don't think we're any closer to war'

"I don't think we're any closer to war than we were before the president made those remarks," Ruggiero said.

Collins noted that threat of North Korea developing a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile remains present, though some nuclear scientists doubt the sophistication of the North's missile guidance systems, or the ability of the missiles to re-enter the atmosphere without burning up.

"The rhetoric between North Korea and the Trump administration wasn't helpful, but that doesn't mean we're going to war tomorrow with North Korea," Collins said. "But the reality of the fact is we shouldn't underestimate what North Korea is capable of." 

CBC's Washington reporter Ellen Mauro posed your questions to Adam Mount, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, in a Facebook live interview. Watch the video below. 


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong