In August, Donald Trump crossed his arms and proclaimed that North Korea would face “fire, fury, and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen” should it continue to threaten the United States.
Today, North Korea continued to do just that, launching its most advanced ICBM yet and boasting that all of mainland America is now within its range.
Given Trump’s earlier rhetoric, the question now is whether he’ll feel the need for even more dramatic language. “That’s what I worry about,” Philip Coyle, a senior fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, told Wired. “That this sets off a chain of responses and counter-responses that keeps escalating.”
Such fears are not unjustified. In September, Trump suggested in a tweet that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un “won’t be around much longer.” North Korea’s foreign minister, Ri Yong-ho, then told reporters the tweet was “clearly a declaration of war,” adding for good measure that his country has “the right to shoot down the United States’ strategic bombers even when they’re not yet inside the airspace border of our country.”
Interpreting the tweet as a declaration of war was “absurd,” said White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders later. But misinterpretation and miscalculations are entirely possible in international affairs.
Trump has shown himself more than willing to use bluster even though nuclear weapons are involved, making the stakes of a misinterpretation unthinkable. A few weeks ago, senators from both sides of the aisle held a hearing on whether the president should continue to have the sole authority to launch a nuclear attack—the first such hearing in more than 40 years.
So far, Trump has reacted with unusual restraint to North Korea’s latest missile test, telling reporters, “I can only tell you that we will take care of it… It is a situation that we will handle.”
Whether he can refrain from using more colorful language in the days ahead remains to be seen.