Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

What Americans Misunderstand About North Korea


North Korea is continuing to ratchet up the rhetoric. Last night, North Korea's military called President Trump's fire-and-fury threat a load of nonsense and said that only absolute force can work on President Trump. Here's how White House adviser Sebastian Gorka interpreted Trump's warning that the North would face fire and fury. He appeared on Fox News yesterday.


SEBASTIAN GORKA: He's saying, don't test America, and don't test Donald J. Trump. We are not just a superpower. We were a superpower. We are now a hyperpower. Nobody in the world - especially not North Korea - comes close to challenging our military capabilities.

CHANG: A hyperpower. David Kang is with us now to unpack all of this. He's the director of the University of Southern California's Korean Studies Institute. Thanks for being with us.

DAVID KANG: My pleasure.

CHANG: So you have said before that you think U.S. fears of North Korea are overblown. Why is that?

KANG: Because deterrence still works. What the U.S. administration is saying, and what North Korea are saying is, we'll both fight back. And it works because we both believe each other. So that's a lot of talk, but it's really communicating that this isn't something that we want to let get out of hand.

CHANG: But some people are fearing that Trump's brash language is a veiled threat of war. The U.S. has been issuing threats against North Korea for more than 15 years. Both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations threatened war. Is there any reason to believe that there's greater chance of war under President Trump than under those past administrations?

KANG: Not really, and that's exactly the point. Even Bill Clinton threatened a nuclear response if North Korea attacked first. And the thing that we missed with the rhetoric with North Korea is there's always a first clause, which is if the United States attacks us first, comma, we'll fight back. And that's what they're saying. And then, the American administration is saying, oh, yeah? Well, if you attack us first, we'll fight back. So it's still basically the same.

CHANG: There's nothing that struck you as different about Trump's latest tweets and statements about North Korea that represents a little bit of a shift from how previous administrations have approached North Korea?

KANG: The only shift is that the language is more flamboyant than I think most other presidents have used. But as you said, other presidents have said all options are on the table because they are. That doesn't mean we plan to use them, but it means that all presidents consider military force.

CHANG: President Trump wrote on Twitter yesterday morning that his first order as president has been to renovate and modernize our nuclear arsenal. What do you think? Does - do you think his administration actually understands the real risks of attacking North Korea?

KANG: Yes. And that's one of the reasons that deterrence has held for almost 70 years is that the costs and the risks are so high and so clear that nobody starts a war. We have 25,000 troops in South Korea, 150,000 American citizens living in South Korea, 50,000 troops in Japan, and obviously, a base in Guam that North Korea's threatened.

So one reason we don't attack North Korea is they can fight back and hit us. It's the same reason that they don't attack us. We can hit them back. And so it's very clear what the costs are to both sides.

CHANG: I want to get to something that the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, said. She called Kim Jong Un not a rational person. And there was a piece that you wrote in Foreign Affairs yesterday, saying that writing off the North Korean leader as crazy would be to underestimate him. How do you think he's misunderstood here in the U.S.?

KANG: I think, particularly, this discussion about whether he's rational or not totally misses the point. Of course he's rational. He knows the costs. He knows the benefits. He's been in rule for six years now, so he doesn't show any signs of being unstable. And that makes us underestimate what North Korea's trying to do. And so we keep thinking the problem might go away or it might solve itself, but he's going to be around for a long time. And we need to learn that we're going to have to deal with him in some way.

CHANG: David Kang is the director of the University of Southern California's Korean Studies Institute. Thank you very much for joining us.

KANG: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.