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Does Trump’s war of words with North Korea inflame or deter?

North Korea has long rallied its people with bombastic threats against the U.S., but lately the evolving war of words has escalated between the two countries. Nick Schifrin speaks with Kathleen Stephens of Stanford University and Balbina Hwang of Georgetown University about President Trump's rhetoric and its possible real-world effects.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The rhetoric between North Korea and the United States has long been bellicose and acrimonious. But over the past few weeks, the back-and-forth has escalated even further, and grown arguably more ominous.

    Nick Schifrin has the story.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    For decades, North Korea has rallied its population with propaganda, calling U.S. an existential threat. This weekend, more than 100,000 North Koreans, scripted, staged and suited, pledged allegiance to leader Kim Jong-un.

  • The banner reads:

    "If the U.S. attacks us, wipe them out forever."

    The propaganda machine goes even further. Videos show North Korea targeting the White House and destroying the Capitol. Up until recently, the U.S. has tried not to match bombastic threats with threats. But, today, name-calling brinkmanship is mutual.

  • PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

    Rocket Man should have been handled a long time ago.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    And a Kim Jong-un statement read by a North Korean TV presenter:

  • WOMAN (through interpreter):

    "I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged U.S. dotard with fire."

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    The war of words has been escalating all year. On January 2, President Trump tweeted: "North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won't happen."

    By July, the North Koreans did test an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting the United States. The next month, the president laid down a new red line.

  • DONALD TRUMP:

    North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury, like the world has never seen.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    North Korea crossed that line some 24 hours later, threatening to envelop U.S. territory Guam.

  • MAN (through interpreter):

    Sound dialogue is not possible with such a guy, bereft of reason, who is going senile.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    The tit-for-tat continued at the United Nations General Assembly:

  • DONALD TRUMP:

    Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.

  • RI YONG HO, Foreign Minister, North Korea (through interpreter):

    It's an absurd reality a person like Trump, a mentally deranged person full of megalomania and complacency, holds the nuclear button.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    Over the weekend, President Trump tweeted that if North Korean officials repeated specific threats, they won't be around much longer.

    And the North Korean foreign minister responded:

  • RI YONG HO, (through interpreter):

    Since the United States declared war on our country, we have every right to take countermeasures, including shooting down the United States' strategic bombers. The question of who will be around much longer will be answered then.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    Today, President Trump repeated his threats and said Kim Jong-un started it.

  • PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

    He's saying things that should, never ever be said, and we're replying to those things, but it's a reply. It's not an original statement. It's a reply.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    To talk about whether the president's rhetoric really is a reply, and whether the war of words increases the chances of war, we get two views.

    Kathleen Stephens was a career diplomat and served as U.S. ambassador to South Korea and undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. She joins us from Stanford University, where she is a fellow. And Balbina Hwang was a special adviser to the assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs, and is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University.

    And thank you to you both.

    Ambassador Stephens, let me start with you.

    Do you believe that President Trump might actually be reducing U.S. options, perhaps bringing us either closer to war or proving U.S. threats meaningless?

  • KATHLEEN STEPHENS, Stanford University:

    Well, I am really baffled and very concerned about this engagement by, for the first time, I think, by an American president in this kind of tit-for-tat rhetoric, I think you called it brinksmanship, with the North Korean leader.

    I think this is beneath us. I subscribe to Teddy Roosevelt's speak softly and carry a big stick if you're a great power like the United States.

    There's a lot of things about the Trump administration's policies toward North Korea which I think have been very sound and being pursued by Secretary Mattis and Secretary Tillerson. And this war of words is undermining those efforts. It's going to make diplomacy more difficult. It's confused our allies.

    It's strengthened, I think, Kim Jong-un's assertion to his own people that he was right. In fact, this is what he said in reply to President Trump's U.N. statement about totally destroying North Korea: He was right to pursue nuclear weapons, and he's not going to stop.

    So, I think this is complicating the administration's own efforts, ironically, and, even more immediately, making it very, very difficult to manage that situation on the Korean Peninsula. This has always been about managing escalation and preventing escalation and preventing misunderstanding.

    We have been close to war many times on the Korean Peninsula in the past years, and we have had to work very quietly, I think, to manage that. This kind of war of words between two leaders makes it much more difficult.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    Professor Hwang, are the threats ineffective, or could they actually be effective?

  • BALBINA HWANG, Georgetown University:

    Well, I actually think, rather oddly, that, in fact, they will — they are being effective.

    We have to remember, it's not so much that I disagree with Ambassador Stephens, but I do think that President Obama, for example, for eight years, did take the high road.

    But I do think that President Obama, for example, for eight years, did take the high road. And I think he was being very firm. And he did try negotiations, but essentially had a policy of being tough where he needed to be.

    But actually carrying the soft sick didn't work, in the sense that it didn't deter North Korea. It didn't bring North Korea to the negotiating table. And so, of course, going down to sort of schoolyard level in this kind of matching rhetoric may not necessarily help, but, on the other hand, it does set very clear what U.S. intentions are and what this president is not willing to tolerate.

    That's not the worst thing as far as North Korea is concerned.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    But what about that, Professor Stephens? Perhaps these threats are effective deterrents.

  • KATHLEEN STEPHENS:

    You know, I'm not for a soft stick. I'm for a hard stick.

    And I think that — and I do support the steps both the previous administration has taken and that President Trump has taken to strengthen deterrents, to strengthen defense, to demonstrate a determination to defend our allies, as well as our homeland.

    But we're a big country. We're a great power. And I think we need to — and our words matter. One thing that strikes me, from my many years in Asia, is that the words that an American president says, the words that any American official says are pored over and analyzed, whether it's in Seoul or Tokyo or Pyongyang.

    And I have heard that there are units of bright young diplomats in analysts in both Pyongyang and Seoul whose sole task is to read everything that President Trump tweets and says, particularly with relation to the region, and try to figure out what it is he's saying.

    And it seems so completely at odds with things that are said sometimes by himself the day before and the day after, and certainly by Secretary Mattis, Secretary Tillerson, who have outlined a strategy of, as they put it, maximum pressure, maximum engagement.

    What President Trump is doing, in this very ad hominem tit-for-tat with someone who is way beneath us is demeaning, I think, his own position, the position of the United States, and the efforts of his own diplomats and military leaders.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    Professor Hwang, are these threats undermining some of the other members of the administration?

  • BALBINA HWANG:

    Well, there does seem to be some confusion about that.

    On the other hand, again, yes, a president's words matter, but taken in the context of what this president says and does in terms of tweeting, I think, again, even our foreign audience does understand that every single statement that comes out of the president may not necessarily need to be taken so seriously.

    And, in fact, the confusion might also convince the North Korean leaders that they need to act with more caution. I think the more important point is what is behind the actions. What actions are we taking and what actions are North Korea taking?

    And right now, there are no actual military actions that indicate that either is on the brink of waging war with the other. That's actually more important.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    And, Ambassador, to that point, could these threats be effective, where, frankly, a lot of the diplomacy in the past was not?

  • KATHLEEN STEPHENS:

    I don't think the threats are effective.

    And I think, as the discussion before we started this talk demonstrated, the problem with threats is — and certainly red lines is, if you draw red lines — and it's not just the Trump administration that's seen this, but others — and then the North Koreans cross it, what happens?

    It's a problem of credibility. It's a problem. And I think there is a big problem if the words of our president are not taken seriously. It really, really reduces our ability to influence and shape events.

    That said, I do agree with Balbina that my own assessment — and this — there may be some hopeful thinking in this — is that neither side wants a war. I'm worried about the inadvertent miscalculation that can happen in what is a highly militarized environment, one in which President Trump, for the first time — and even putting aside the kind of childish ad hominem attacks on each other — but where he has strayed — well, he has demonstrated no awareness of the kind of traditional kind of clarity of deterrents, how we deter each other, how we signal intentions.

    I don't think that uncertainty is a good thing. No one, perhaps the president himself, knows, is he really talking — when he talks about a response the world has never seen before, is he talking about a nuclear response or not? We don't know.

    Yes, I think that gives Pyongyang pause, but that doesn't give me any comfort, because I think it also, as I mentioned, says to Kim Jong-un, he says, well, I was right to try to develop my own nuclear deterrent.

    I think the challenge now is to find a way to go forward and deter each other.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    Quickly, Professor Hwang, giving Kim Jong-un pause, isn't that part of the point?

  • BALBINA HWANG:

    That's exactly right.

    And, in fact, uncertainty, while it does make us anxious, uncertainty is what drives North Korea's insecurity. And I think, in this case, insecurity is what is going to push North Korea back to the negotiating table, if anything does.

  • NICK SCHIFRIN:

    Professor Hwang, thank you very much, and Ambassador Stephens. Thanks to you both.

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