On Tuesday, Donald Trump delivered his first address to the U.N. General Assembly. He spoke forcefully about terrorism, socialism, and international cooperation.
“The United States has great strength and patience,” Trump told the General Assembly, “but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” Trump then referred to the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as “Rocket Man,” a nickname that the president first used with a tweet sent two days earlier. The moniker was a rhetorical flourish that recalls Iran’s former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spouting Holocaust denials and 9/11 trutherism, or Venezuela’s late leader Hugo Chávez ranting about George Bush’s sulfur aura, both men fuming at the same dais from which Trump spoke Tuesday.
“It is time for North Korea to realize that denuclearization is its only acceptable future,” Trump said. Meanwhile, his defense secretary, Jim Mattis, has teased the possibility of an overwhelming preemptive military strike against North Korea, should tensions escalate further. "Many people have talked about military options with words like 'unimaginable,’" Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Aspen Security Forum in July. "I would probably shift that slightly and say it would be horrific, and it would be a loss of life unlike any we have experienced in our lifetimes, and I mean anyone who's been alive since World War II has never seen the loss of life that could occur if there's a conflict on the Korean Peninsula.”
But who knows, truly, whether Trump really means to push North Korea’s goofy nuclear brinkmanship to the extreme. In fact, it is the pure uncertainty regarding Trump’s motivations, and the volatility of his political whims, that makes the current situation seem so dangerous, and the popular anxiety so notable. Two of Trump’s predecessors, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, publicly stressed the U.S.’s capacity to flatten North Korea during their respective presidential terms. In April 2016, Obama told CBS that the U.S. “could obviously destroy” North Korea if provoked. But unlike the preceding presidents, Trump seems to take a vicious joy in escalating this particular conflict. Before his U.N. address, he threatened “fire and fury like the world has never seen” against North Korea. His fondness for the nickname “Rocket Man” to identify Kim Jong-un suggests that Trump is determined to find some delight at the edge of full-on conflict with a rogue nuclear state.
Trump is a reckless leader. He is a deeply arbitrary president who has yet to communicate any coherent thinking about the region he may or may not bomb. In April, he admitted to having a minimal grasp of the politics of the Korean Peninsula, his comprehension so blank and naive that he relied on Chinese President Xi Jinping to give him a basic overview. “After listening for 10 minutes,” Trump told The Wall Street Journal, “I realized it’s not so easy.” The interview was a rare flash of apprehension from a president who has since regressed to his brutish mean, taunting Kim Jong-un throughout the past couple of months as the North Korean regime has launched two intermediate-range test missiles eastward over Japan and in the general direction of the United States. The U.S. government and savvier foreign policy observers may not take North Korea’s test strikes seriously, but U.S. citizens are anxious, if not quite mortally fearful, about Trump’s cavalier Twitter diplomacy with the regime. Trump and Kim Jong-un are a match made in hell, two autocratic brats whose taunts bounce back and forth across the Pacific like schoolyard insults, horrifying if only because the playground toys they fight over, two nuclear arsenals, might be capable of wiping a city off the map.
Nuclear paranoia is an American pastime and blockbuster concern as old as nuclear weapons themselves.
The U.S. and the Soviet Union first started testing atomic bombs in the 1940s. Soon after the end of World War II, the Iron Curtain split the west from the east, and the U.S. and the Soviet Union primed their new, nuclear arsenals against one another. Suddenly, weapons capable of large-scale devastation might traverse an ocean at a moment’s notice. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, launched by scientists who contributed to the Manhattan Project, first developed the Doomsday Clock to predict when humanity might annihilate itself in a fit of global nuclear warfare. In the 1950s, the U.S. started teaching “duck and cover” to schoolchildren as U.S. generals briefly considered hurling nukes at North Korea and China during the Korean War. Thus dawned an age when the turn of a key and the push of a button could send humanity hurtling toward a glowing oblivion.
It was a morbid but thrilling prospect. In the 1960s, these deep fears resurfaced in popular culture. Dr. Strangelove, directed by Stanley Kubrick and released in 1964, immortalized contemporary fears that nuclear brinkmanship would bring about Armageddon. John F. Kennedy sought global disarmament, and even Richard Nixon, who put on a bold front against the Soviets, feared the prospect of nuclear warfare as a worst-case scenario. But nuclear paranoia swelled nonetheless. The 1980s brought a rush of nuclear cinema, premiering as anti-Soviet anxieties had reached a national peak. Ronald Reagan famously joked about bombing the Soviet Union on a sound check, and Moscow famously took Reagan quite seriously. So did Reagan’s nervous listeners at home.
Following the end of the Cold War in 1991, Western diplomatic relations with Russia thawed, and so the 1990s were a relatively placid decade for the U.S. For North Korea, however, the collapse of the Soviet Union, a key ally and trade partner, was an economic catastrophe. The country flooded, a famine followed, and North Koreans starved. Meanwhile, Kim Jong-il transformed the country into an indecipherable junta that had made the pursuit of nuclear weapons its fanatical, singular wish. Kim Jong-il oversaw the country’s first nuclear weapons test, in October 2006, and the North Korean regime has since tested slightly more powerful bombs and longer-ranged missile systems necessary to strike as far as the U.S. From the 1990s onward, the biggest tangible nuclear nuisance to the U.S. would prove to be North Korea.
This is the North Korean regime we have come to know since the 1990s: a military cult animated by impoverished desperation and apocalyptic fervor. Unlike its fellow rogue nuclear states—Israel, Pakistan, and India—it is uniquely obsessed with antagonizing the U.S. from a great distance, and that antagonism has won North Korea a bizarre infamy in the West, which generally regards the North Korean regime as one of history’s great enigmas.
In Trump, however, Kim Jong-un now confronts a similarly enigmatic counterpart: the U.S. president is so aggressive and haphazard compared to his predecessors that a nuclear showdown, while still an outrageous prospect, seems quite possible now, more possible than ever in this century. Trump essentially dares observers to expect anything better than grotesque outcomes from his administration. He has launched contentious policy pursuits only to later reverse himself rather unexpectedly, moving to chaotic rhythms that it seems only he can hear. Trump bewilders his many critics at home. With each tweet he sends at odd hours of the day, the president sends journalists scrambling to make sense of his temperament and his latest grievances. It’s all quite nerve-wracking for citizens, journalists, public servants, and foreign observers alike. Abroad, Trump frustrates other national leaders’ attempts to read his administration’s global priorities; in most cases, their guess is as good as ours.
For whatever it’s worth, South Korea isn’t especially worried about Kim Jong-un, whose military sits just 35 miles north of Seoul. Japan, which sits uncomfortably between North Korea and the U.S., and which, unlike China, has hostile relations with the regime, watches most anxiously of all as North Korean missiles fly repeatedly over Hokkaido. The U.S., which sits at a much longer remove from North Korea and behind far better defenses, is a nonetheless shaky player in this latest showdown, if only because the prospect of Trump’s wild mismanagement of a nuclear standoff is just one of countless grave concerns that more than half of the country might register with his leadership. The great fear isn’t that North Korea successfully strikes Guam (or wherever else) with a nuclear weapon. It’s that Trump betrays restraint and bombs first, thus exporting his chaotic politics to the world’s stage to escalate a hopeless conflict that Trump admits he doesn’t understand. In any case, Trump has already reignited the deadliest fears of the previous century. He’s got his weariest observers ducking for cover.