SEOUL, South Korea — So much for keeping the U.S.-North Korea crisis a country-to-country war of words. North Korea’s dictator, taking his cue from America’s president, has made it a decidedly personal matter.
Put aside for a moment the name-calling — “Rocket Man” from Donald Trump earlier this week, “mentally deranged U.S. dotard” from Kim Jong Un in comments released Friday. What really stands out is the overall tone of Kim’s first-person response — the first of its kind from the North, Seoul says.
The North Korean leader’s personal warning is aimed directly at Trump. Despite plenty of insults, for the most part it avoids the breathless histrionics that mark typical North Korean screeds even as it lays out what much of the world will see as a frightening vision.
North Korean leaders have long let their slavish state media and lower-level officials carry the burden of releasing regular threats to destroy Washington, Seoul and Tokyo. That was before the arrival of Trump.
The president’s repeated attempts to challenge Kim, using language remarkably similar to that typically found in North Korean propaganda, seemed to reach a zenith Tuesday when he vowed from the U.N. dais to “totally destroy North Korea” if provoked. He followed that up by calling Kim “obviously a madman” in a tweet Friday.
In a country where the Kim family publicly enjoys near-godlike status, Kim’s decision to insert himself directly into the tit-for-tat exchanges raises the stakes way above the level of anti-U.S. propaganda North Koreans typically hear.
Granted, Kim’s comments were filtered through the North’s state media, which serve propaganda efforts meant to lionize him. Still, it is inconceivable that such a statement could be sent out to the world without the supreme leader’s approval.
Kim’s statement also seems to signal more weapons tests on the horizon — a worrying prospect given the North’s willingness to back up its belligerent rhetoric against Trump with action.
In recent months, it has twice tested intercontinental ballistic missiles that could conceivably target the U.S. mainland if perfected, launched two intermediate-range missiles that went soaring over U.S. ally Japan, and carried out its sixth and most powerful nuclear test yet.
In his statement, Kim said the president’s remarks “have convinced me, rather than frightening or stopping me, that the path I chose is correct and that it is the one I have to follow to the last.”
In a somewhat stilted translation provided by state media, Kim said his country is now considering “a corresponding, highest level of hard-line countermeasure in history.”
Hours later, North Korea’s foreign minister, citing that “highest level” phrase from Kim, told reporters in New York that Kim might have been signaling a plan to conduct a test of a hydrogen bomb in the Pacific. Ri Yong Ho didn’t elaborate and said no one knew what decision Kim would make.
If Ri was referring to an atmospheric detonation of a nuke, something that hasn’t happened since a Chinese test in 1980, it could endanger people and transportation across the region. It would also be seen as extraordinarily provocative by Washington, significantly raising the chances of U.S. retaliation.
“We are talking about putting a live nuclear warhead on a missile that has been tested only a handful of times,” said Vipin Narang, a nuclear strategy expert at MIT. “It is truly terrifying if something goes wrong.”
For the moment though, tiny, impoverished North Korea has pulled off an international public relations coup by drawing the world’s most powerful man into a direct war of words with its leader.
And an exchange of threats is a game North Korea — a nation that’s overshadowed on everything non-nuclear by its rich and vibrant southern rival — is more than willing to play. It has, after all, for decades made the state-backed issuance of intimidation a crucial part of its interaction with the outside world.
The North’s incessant glorification of Kim is abetted in large part by its success in portraying a leader willing and able to defy, with threats and proud disdain, a purported U.S.-led campaign to crush North Korea with the toughest imaginable sanctions.
Trump’s threats have given Pyongyang just what it craves: The chance to show Kim standing toe-to-toe with America.
Foster Klug is AP’s bureau chief in Seoul. He has covered the Koreas since 2005. Follow him on Twitter: www.twitter.com/apklug