Don’t Trust Trump’s North Korea Bluff, Bluster, and Brinksmanship

Early weapons models, such as the "Fat Ma...
Early atomic weapons models, such as the “Fat Man” bomb, were extremely large and difficult to use. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

US president Donald Trump put much of the world atwitter and ajitter Tuesday with his comment to the press: “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.”  Trump’s certainly proving himself  Kim Jong Un’s equal at foreign affairs smack talk.

Is he serious? I believe so. I expect some sort of major military confrontation — possibly even outright war — between the US and North Korea before August ends. Naturally I hope I’m wrong, but matters do seem to be coming to a head.

With that  in mind, it’s worth examining some of the US government’s claims about North Korea and how they stack up against reality.

First, let’s look at what Trump means when he refers to the current set of “threats” from North Korea: On August 7, the Washington Post reports, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho “told diplomats that his country will never negotiate away what he called a rational ‘strategic option’ against the threat of attack from the United States. … Ri said Pyongyang will use nuclear weapons only against the United States or any other country that might join it in military action against North Korea.”

In other words, North Korea is “threatening” to defend itself if attacked, and reserving the right to use nuclear weapons in its defense. Doesn’t sound like much of a “threat,” does it?

Next, the current round of mutual saber-rattling coincides with a convenient and likely Trump-approved leak. The Post cites unnamed officials and an alleged Defense Intelligence Agency assessment to the effect that North Korea “has successfully produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can fit inside its missiles” (the claim last month was that the North now has missiles which can reach the US mainland).

This set of claims doesn’t pass the smell test.

First of all, so far the North has only proven (with detonations) that it can make large, heavy, old-style fission atomic weapons, not bona fide nuclear weapons (hydrogen bombs). Miniaturization? That sounds a lot like “Saddam is stockpiling Weapons of Mass Destruction” (he wasn’t) or “Iran is six months from having nukes” (the latter claim having been renewed every six months from 1996 to 2015).

Secondly, while the North recently tested a rocket that it claims is an intercontinental ballistic missile, there’s reason to be skeptical of that claim and secondarily of the notion that they could reliably produce such rockets in quantity and expect them to work.

Finally, there’s the matter of mating those unlikely nukes to those unlikely rockets and getting them to detonate at the impact end of a fall from space. That’s rocket science of an order the North hasn’t previously displayed a flair for.

Claire Boothe Luce called Franklin Delano Roosevelt “the only American president who ever lied us into a war because he did not have the political courage to lead us into it.” If so, Trump seems bent on following in his illustrious predecessor’s footsteps.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism ( He lives and works in north central Florida.


Also published on Medium.

  • Steve Trinward

    I have been trying to get these points across to my people (incl some who should see through this shit instantly?). Goodf summary of the .. shall we say “reality” of it?

  • JdL

    First of all, so far the North has only proven (with detonations) that it can make large, heavy, old-style fission atomic weapons, not bona fide nuclear weapons (hydrogen bombs).

    Your distinction of fission vs. fusion devices is of course relevant to how much of a threat NK represents, but both qualify as “bona fide nuclear weapons” (ref ).

    • I’ve seen a number of arguments over the distinction. I find the format …

      Fission weapon = atomic bomb
      Fusion weapon = nuclear bomb

      … useful. So far, the North has not DEMONSTRATED the ability to detonate anything larger than a 30 kiloton fission weapon (a little larger than the Nagasaki bomb).

      Yes, that is horrific, and would be especially horrific if delivered to, say, Los Angeles. But it’s not thermonuclear Armageddon on the scale that those of us who remember the Cold War were brought up to fear.

      Here’s where the North is at, so far as can be divined from the actual reasonable verifiable record:

      – They can detonate a weapon at a test facility, but so far not especially reliably as to achieving the fission explosion and so far not at all as to achieving a fusion detonation.

      – They can launch a rocket that may or may not be able to reach the United States, if it makes it off the launch pad (it doesn’t always do that) and if it doesn’t explode or come apart in flight (if often does that).

      – There’s no reason whatsoever to believe (unless you trust intentionally leaked “intelligence” that seems to have been produced to fit a desired outcome rather than to reflect reality) that they can yet mount a fission or fusion weapon on a rocket and rely on that rocket to reach the United States or on that weapon to detonate if it does reach the United States. That is FAR beyond any capability they’ve thus far demonstrated.