Day 6

Rhetoric over risk: why the escalating tensions with North Korea may be overblown

The growing tensions between the U.S. and North Korea dominated global headlines this week, amidst the incendiary rhetoric of both countries' leaders. But do these threats represent a credible escalation toward military conflict? Steve Herman of VOA News tells Brent Bambury how the media is exaggerating the risk.
(JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images; Korean Central News AgencyAssociated Press)

This week, the residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki marked the 72nd anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombs that destroyed their cities, killing tens of thousands of people.

On Wednesday, Nagasaki mayor Tomihisa Taue issued an impassioned call for an international ban on nuclear weapons.

A file photo from the North Korean government depicts the test launch of a Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile on July 4. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via Associated Press)
But international headlines warned that the world could be hurtling
directly toward the conflict Taue was cautioning against.

Taue's speech landed amidst rapidly-escalating tensions between the U.S. and North Korea, just one day after President Trump threatened North Korea with "fire and fury" — echoing a 1945 speech by former U.S. President Harry Truman in the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing.

The same day, North Korea issued a threat of its own — vowing to complete plans for a possible missile attack against the U.S.-Pacific territory of Guam by mid-August.

Trump later doubled down on his rhetoric, suggesting his initial threat may not have gone far enough. On Friday morning, he tweeted U.S. military solutions were "locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely."

That intensifying hostility left many journalists asking whether this week's events could mark the opening salvo for an armed conflict between the two countries.

But according to Steve Herman, the media may be getting ahead of itself.

Herman, who covered North Korea for many years, is the White House Bureau Chief with VOA News.

As he tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury, while nuclear war may make for great television ratings, this week's sensational news headlines have gone too far.

"It was pretty obvious to a lot of people that the reporting that was airing over major cable networks in the United States was approaching hysterical," Herman says.

"I heard from people in various different countries who were almost in a panic, believing that a full-scale nuclear war between the United States and North Korea was going to break out at any minute."

A rally in support of North Korea's stance against the US, on Kim Il-Sung square in Pyongyang on August 9.


Public tensions, private talks

President Trump's initial threat against North Korea on Tuesday came on the heels of a Washington Post report indicating North Korea may possess miniature nuclear warheads capable of hitting the continental United States.

Several hours later, the DPRK issued its statement vowing to complete plans for an attack on Guam.

Many reports described North Korea's threat to attack Guam as a direct response to Trump's "fire and fury" remarks.

But Herman says the headlines got it wrong.

"That statement had been prepared before the president said that," Herman says. "The North Koreans are very specific when they are responding to say what they are responding to."

"In their statement, they said they were responding to the U.S. ICBM test from the Vandenberg base in California, and also the overflight of the Korean Peninsula earlier in the day on Tuesday that had taken place from Guam. And that is why Guam was targeted." 

I heard from people in various different countries who were almost in a panic, believing that a full-scale nuclear war between the United States and North Korea was going to break out at any minute.- Steve Herman

It wasn't until the following day that the regime officially responded to Trump's threat, calling it "a load of nonsense."

Other U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, have since downplayed Trump's aggressive language, emphasizing the need for diplomacy.

On Friday, the Associated Press reported that the U.S. has in fact been engaged in back-channel diplomatic talks with North Korea for several months.

A ground-based interceptor missile takeoff at Vandenberg Air Force base in California on May 30, 2017. (GENE BLEVINS/AFP/Getty Images)

While he calls President Trump's comments "unprecedented," Herman argues that geopolitically, the state of affairs has not changed much — however dangerous the situation may be.

"The situation on the Korean peninsula is always dangerous," he says. "It's been dangerous since the armistice was signed in 1953, because there was never any peace treaty."

"The motto of U.S. Forces Korea is 'fight tonight' — to be ready 24/7 because anything could happen at any time. And that has been the case for decades."

In an interview this week with the New York Times' podcast The Daily, U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry expressed his concern that the U.S. and North Korea could "drift into some kind of a conventional war, which could then escalate into a nuclear war."

Responding to Perry's comments, Herman says that while such a conflict could arise, it's also possible that Trump's approach could benefit the United States.

"There are those I know in the White House who believe that this is a good strategy to actually settle things down; to get the North Koreans to think that President Trump is unpredictable, and they could be risking annihilation by provoking the United States," Herman says.

"We also had that theory in the Nixon administration in regards to the war in Southeast Asia, where Henry Kissinger said that Nixon wanted to be perceived as unstable and dangerous."

"There was also the case in the initial Korean war in the early 1950s where you had General Douglas MacArthur threatening to use nuclear weapons, and eventually President Truman fired the general."

"In this case, you have the Commander-in-Chief who is saying these things, [whereas] it is his generals and members of his cabinet who are trying to talk down the rhetoric."

Trump threatens North Korea again

6 years ago
Duration 1:03
U.S. President Donald Trump says that perhaps his 'fire and fury' warning to North Korea 'wasn't tough enough'


De-escalation in the media

Herman says it remains to be seen whether the current White House will be able to avoid further escalation moving forward. But to date, both sides have left the door open to negotiations.

Those calls for diplomacy have not necessarily been top of mind for major news networks.

"I think talking about diplomatic negotiations is quite boring compared to the possibility of talking about nuclear war," he says. "These networks, most of them, are commercial entities. And it's going to drive up ratings."

Still, as events unfold, the tone of the media coverage will matter, Herman says.

They [North Koreans] will believe that this hysterical type of news coverage is something that the United States government is behind and endorsing.- Steve Herman

"I've been to North Korea, I've spent 10 days there. I've spoken to North Korean officials, both inside and outside North Korea, over the years. And they believe the U.S. media is under the control of the U.S. government. Because of course in their country, there is no such separation."

"And so they will believe that this hysterical type of news coverage is something that the United States government is behind and endorsing."

"That is very dangerous, because you start to get into this feedback loop where the rhetoric just continues to escalate."

To hear the full interview with Steve Herman, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.