Reckless Trump-Kim Insult War Could Trigger Catastrophic Conflict

Posted Sept. 27, 2017

MP3 Interview with Joseph Gerson, disarmament coordinator with the American Friends Service Committee, conducted by Scott Harris


Since Donald Trump threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea in a speech before the UN General Assembly on Sept. 19, the war of insults between the American president and Pyongyang’s leader Kim Jong Un has intensified. After North Korea threatened to detonate a nuclear weapon over the Pacific Ocean, Trump responded with a tweet that the North Korean Leader was, “obviously a madman… that would be tested like never before.” Later, Trump tweeted that if North Korea’s foreign minister echoed the thoughts of president Kim in his UN speech, “they won’t be around much longer!”

The exchange of insults continued with the North’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho stating that the U.S. had declared war on his country, and his nation has every right to take defensive countermeasures. He also said Trump’s insults make it "inevitable" that the country's rockets will strike the U.S. mainland. These comments followed soon after the U.S. flew B-1B bombers and F-15 fighter jets in international airspace east of North Korea’s coast – the farthest north of the demilitarized zone that U.S. fighters or bombers had ever flown this century.

Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Joseph Gerson, disarmament coordinator with the American Friends Service Committee, who discusses the danger of unintended consequences that could result from the threats and insults hurled by Trump at North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and the conditions that could pave the way for negotiations to reduce tensions that could trigger a catastrophic conflict on the Korean peninsula and across the region. [Rush transcript]

JOSEPH GERSON: This is not the most mature action that we can expect of our leaders and it's really quite disturbing and frightening. My concern is that we find a situation in which the words that these leaders have expressed create political realities from which they can't back off. Some of your listeners will remember that back during the Cuban missile crisis, at one point, President Kennedy turned to his brother, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, and said "You know, if I hadn't ratcheted up this crisis, I would be impeached."

I think it's important for all people who are concerned, really, ultimately about human survival, to weigh in on our congressional representatives saying, "Look, the obvious way forward on this is to negotiate." If you go back to the Cuban missile crisis, what you find is that even then-Secretary of Defense (Robert) McNamara said early in the crisis, look it's not worth it, because in time, Russia will have ICBMs that could reach us. And we're in a situation where, in some ways, the actions of North Korea and development of nuclear weapons have their own logic. I mean, obviously, no country should possess nuclear weapons, given what they could do. But the reality is that North Korea has been threatened with nuclear attack by the United States, somewhere between nine and a dozen times. In this circumstance, it's moved to create a nuclear arsenal, largely to deter as a threat to the United States.

And the way forward, obviously, is to sit down and negotiate some form of non-aggression. People talk in terms of freeze-for-freeze, some form of diplomatic way forward which is precisely what happened during the Cuban missile crisis when cooler heads prevailed.

BETWEEN THE LINES: It's been said by our politicians as well as commentators that the leadership of North Korea is irrational, not to be trusted and basically, saying that they're on a suicide mission of some kind. What's the basic framework for possible negotiations that could be kicked off? And I know that North Korea has made statements basically saying that they want an end to the Korean war. They also want normalized diplomatic relations. Is there any way that the United States, along with China, which you know has provided vital resources to North Korea, could push this agenda at this point? Or are things too frayed and angry?

JOSEPH GERSON: Well, I think in any negotiations things move maybe slower than one would want. But if you go back as early as 20 years ago, Scott Snyder of the Asia Foundation was writing about the rationality within North Korea's actions and former Secretary of Defense (William) Kerry has talked about this more recently. And people should remember that Perry and Secretary of State (Madeleine) Albright essentially negotiated a comprehensive agreement with North Korea in 1999 and 2000, which was basically thrown out, not fulfilled by the Bush administration early on.

I think that we need to recognize that the primary concerns of the North Korean leadership is preservation of the Kim dynasty and preservation of North Korean sovereignty. Those are its bottom lines. And certainly, we can negotiate within those frameworks. I mean, we certainly have relationships with more than a few dictatorships around the world. We might begin with Saudi Arabia, but there's a bunch of others as well. So, I think we can move to negotiations. Getting to the point of replacing the armistice with a peace agreement will take some time in negotiations. But you build from step to step as you build trust through the negotiations.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Well Joseph, there's a lot of concern about Donald Trump and his fitness for office. And people around the country have placed a lot of hope in the generals that surround Donald Trump: (Chief of Staff) Gen. John Kelly, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford and national security adviser H.R. McMaster. There's a lot of faith put in them, that they're going to prevent Donald Trump from making an reckless moves that could cost a lot of lives in the Korea peninsula or here in the United States.

JOSEPH GERSON: The recent ABC and CNN polls indicate that most Americans trust the generals more than they do Trump. And in a sense, we face a constitutional crisis because our Constitution provides for civilian control over the military. You could back, for example, to the Cuban missile crisis and you could see some of the dangers of having the military in control.

So, one would hope through some kind of dynamic between the generals and Trump and our other political leaders that Trump can be walked back from this perch on which he's placed us all.

For more information, visit the American Friends Service Committee at

Related Links:

Subscribe and get Between The Lines' Weekly Summary in your inbox!