Television, the press, and the Twitterverse have been full of much sound and fury lately, thanks to the President of the United States of America and the leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, better known as North Korea. The spat would be comical if the players were not armed with nuclear weapons, and if there were no threats of North Korean above-ground H-bomb tests in the Pacific or headlines like “Mattis hints at secret ‘kinetic’ military options for North Korea.”
It started with an astonishing display by President Trump at the UN General Assembly, where Trump said that “the United States will have no choice but to totally destroy” the North—in a tone that suggested that he was actually excited at the thought, noted The Atlantic. Trump has continued in this vein since, calling his counterpart a “madman” and worse, as the Washington Post noted.
Not to be outdone, Kim Jong-un publicly called Trump “a mentally deranged US dotard”—leading to a spike in on-line searches for the meaning of the word “dotard,” tweeted dictionary giant Merriam-Webster.
In language more suitable for a school playground, Trump said that the North Korean leader was “on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime” and called Kim Jong-un a “Rocket Man.”
At times, it’s been hard to know what headlines are real and what are satires; witness The New Yorker article “In war of Elton John lyrics, Kim Jong-un calls Trump ‘Honky Cat.’ ”
So far, at least, it sounds like the two sides are willing to call each other names and rattle missiles at each other, but not start a full-scale war. North Korea has a history of such rhetoric, as was best summed up by a 2007 Washington Post article titled “Schoolyard Taunts With Much Higher Stakes: War of Words Between U.S., N. Korea.”
But the trouble with such hostile swaggering is that it can easily lead to more serious situations.
In Hawaii, officials and legislators met behind closed doors to examine the probable impact of a nuclear blast “at various altitudes above Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam,” reported the Honolulu Civil Beat.
Indeed, today’s New York Times notes that by personalizing the situation and putting his own name on the line, Kim Jong-un—whose regime is held in place partly by a cult of personality, wherein members of his family are treated as deities—may be backed into a corner and forced to do something drastic as a result of the rhetorical overkill. “There is no backing down in the North Korean rule book,” notes longtime North Korea analyst Paik Hak-soon in the Times article. “It’s the very core of their leadership identity and motive.”
And just because things have remained static so far on the Korean Peninsula, there’s no guarantee that this heavily armed nuclear stand-off can continue in perpetuity.
During the beginning of World War II, there was a months-long period during which not much at all happened on the Western Front, something that reporters at the time jokingly referred to as the “phony war” or Sitzkrieg. Journalists on the front lines—such as William L. Shirer—reported that troops on both sides of the French/German border “went about their business in full sight and range” of each other, not firing a shot. “The Germans were hauling up guns and supplies on the railroad line, but the French did not disturb them,” Shirer wrote in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. “Queer kind of war.”
And then the real thing began.
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