Stephen Walt on the War of Words between the U.S. and North Korea

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, where he served as Academic Dean from 2002 to 2006.  He previously taught at Princeton and at the University of Chicago, where he was Master of the Social Sciences Collegiate Division and Deputy Dean of Social Sciences.  He is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy magazine, co-chair of the editorial board of International Security, and co-editor of the Cornell Studies in Security Affairs book series.  He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in May 2005 and received the International Studies Association’s Distinguished Senior Scholar award in 2014.  His books include The Origins of Alliances, which received the 1988 Edgar S. Furniss National Security Book Award, and Taming American Power: The Global Response to U.S. Primacy, which was a finalist for the Lionel Gelber International Affairs Book Award and the Arthur Ross Book Prize.  His most recent book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (co-authored with John J. Mearsheimer) was a New York Times best-seller and has been translated into more than twenty foreign languages.  His weekly Foreign Policy column can be found at  

In 2017, North Korea successfully tested its first intercontinental ballistic missiles in July and claimed to successfully test a hydrogen bomb. President Trump and Kim Jong Un exchanged several rounds of provocative comments. Many argued that these insulting languages added fuel to fire. How unusual is such rhetorical escalation involving a sitting American president and a foreign dictator?

It’s very unusual for an American president to be acting in this way. There have been some foreign governments that have used this kind of rhetoric in the past. We usually interpreted that as a sign that they were immature, unsophisticated, very radical, etc. Generally, American presidents have tried to choose their words carefully when dealing with other foreign governments. The one exception would be when there was an actual war going on: U.S. leaders said things said about General Tojo of Japan or Hitler and other Nazis in WWII. In a situation like the dispute with North Korea, however, when you are trying to manage a crisis, I cannot think of other cases in which an American president has used this sort of language.

Did President Trump choose these words for some strategic purposes, or did he just casually express his personal opinion?

It’s hard to know for sure because I don’t know what was going on in Trump’s head, but I would say it’s more likely to be the latter. I suspect that they are his personal comments rather than part of a larger strategy because this behavior is part of a pattern going back for years. In the 2016 presidential campaign, for example, he insulted all of his political opponents. This is the way he tends to act. It doesn’t appear that he has a real strategic purpose except belittling them. It’s hard to see why Trump thinks calling Kim Jong Un names like “Little Rocket Man” is going to make the American position any stronger or help resolve differences between us and North Korea.

How would you read the strategic intentions behind Kim Jong Un’s war of words with Trump? Is he being strategic or simply bombastic?

Ironically, you could argue that there is more of a strategic aim on Kim’s side because this has been a standard pattern for North Korea for half a century or more. They tend to use a very defiant, violent, and insulting rhetoric. I think it is designed to convey a message that North Korea is resolute and willing to go to any length to defend itself and that it will not be intimidated and stopped. In some respects, the more you insult them, the more they are going to respond in kind. They also have a domestic political objective: extreme rhetoric is designed to show that North Korea’s leadership is strong and ¬in charge and is defending the country. You could even argue that Kim Jong Un and Trump are playing the same game: they are not necessarily trying to solve the crisis when they act this way, but instead are playing to domestic audience. Trump is trying to appeal to Americans who want him to be the toughest guy on the block. Similarly, people in North Korea may see Kim’s defiance to the United States as a sign of strength.

How did war of words between adversaries caught in a crisis end in the past?

There are lots of different outcomes. In some cases, harsh rhetoric just hardened the positions on both sides and made it more difficult to resolve things. It may even provoke countries into taking actions, either because they are angry, or because they formed a very malign view of the other side. There are other times when there is a war of words and exchanges of provocative or insulting statements for a few weeks, but nobody wants to do anything about it and it just dies away. I think, by itself, this rhetoric is not helpful, but it doesn’t necessarily have to lead to a violent outcome.

The U.S. Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, announced that the U.S. has three direct channels of communication with Pyongyang, without explaining what these channels are. Does the U.S. and DPRK really have these channels or communicate via a third party like the U.N.? Are these channels effective to ease the tension?

Certainly, we have channels available if we want to use them. I believe North Korea has diplomatic relations with about 164 countries today. These states include some countries very close to the United States, such as Australia, Canada, Denmark, Germany, etc. These countries have ambassadors and embassies in Pyongyang. If we want to send a message to North Korea or establish a channel of communication, therefore, that’s relatively easy to do. There have been situations in the past in which we have done this in order to deal with problems with Pyongyang. For example, when North Korea seized an American naval reconnaissance ship USS Pueblo in 1968, there were channels available to eventually resolve that dispute and get the crew returned. So channels are clearly available, but whether they are effective to ease the tension depends on how the United States and North Korea use them. What do we say to them, what do they say to us, and will there be a genuine search for some kinds of common ground that will start lowering the temperature?

Regardless of whether any diplomatic efforts to engage the North Koreans will be successful, how would President Trump’s tweet calling Tillerson’s efforts a “waste of time” affect the delicate situation on the Korean peninsula?

I think that statement was bad for two reasons. First of all, it undercut Tillerson and made it appear that Tillerson did not have Trump’s confidence. Therefore, if Tillerson was making any progress, it undermined him, because North Koreans and others will look at that and say “he doesn’t speak for the president; he doesn’t speak for the U.S. government; why should we listen to anything he says?” So Trump’s statement made Tillerson’s efforts much less effective. Secondly, I think it undermines the confidence of South Korea’s confidence in the United States. It made it appear to people in South Korea that the United States doesn’t really care very much about this issue. Look at it from their point of view: the U.S. president was saying diplomacy is not going to work. If you think you have a serious problem with North Korea, and you also believe that diplomacy is not going to work, then what option is left? The answer is: war. But if you are South Korea, the last thing you want is some kind of escalation and possibly the use of military force. So, I think Trump’s tweets were very unfortunate in both undercutting the American position, but also hurting our image in South Korea.

North Korea cheated after agreeing to the Agreed Framework under the Clinton administration and violated the agreement of the Six Party Talks under the George W. Bush administration. However, South Korea seemed more oriented toward conciliation. What policy options do you think that the U.S. should choose to deal with North Korea?

I think the only option for the United States is a combination of deterrence of diplomacy. We should make it clear that any use of North Korean nuclear weapon or any sale of nuclear technology to anybody else would provoke an American response. Partly, what we want to do is deter North Korea from using its nuclear arsenal or other capabilities in ways that would undermine or threaten the United States or its allies. The second thing that we should be doing is diplomacy and outreach, because we don’t want to live with this problem for the next twenty-five, thirty, forty … years. Given that using force is not an appealing option, the United States has to engage with them diplomatically and see if there is some common ground. Are there things we would be willing to provide them, in exchange for things that we want them to do? Is there a mutually beneficial bargain to be had? I don’t know, but, the Trump administration does not seem to be interested even in exploring that possibility, at least at present.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy insisted on a quarantine rather than a direct invasion. He also urged restraint and asked for a peaceful settlement that would "not diminish their national security or be a public humiliation." Is the Cuban Missile Crisis is a good parallel to the current situation? Specifically, do you think what the Trump administration can learn, on the rhetorical front, from the Kennedy administration in handling a very dangerous crisis involving a closed autocratic regime?

I actually don’t think the Cuban Missile Crisis is a particularly good analogy. It’s not to say that there weren’t some lessons of crisis management. Kennedy’s handling of the crisis reminds us that one should be very careful, think through your options, debate alternatives, try to slow the pace of events down, and avoid taking steps that may spin out of control by accident, etc. All of those lessons are good principles for managing a crisis under almost any circumstances.

There are a couple of ways that the Cuban Missile Crisis isn’t a good comparison. First of all, in the Cuban Missile Crisis we were dealing with a global super power—the Soviet Union—which was much stronger than North Korea is. That made it a bigger problem and harder to manage, and it also meant the consequences were much more severe if we had not managed it. We were dealing with a country that had a large nuclear arsenal of its own, so we were looking at the possibilities of a global thermonuclear war if things spun out of control. That’s not what we are talking about North Korea, nothing quite that dramatic. The second difference, though, is that although the Soviet Union was a rival, even an enemy, we had diplomatic relations with them. We had been dealing with Soviet diplomats and the government since the 1930’s. U.S. leaders have met with their Soviet counterparts frequently and Kennedy had met with Khrushchev in Vienna the previous year. Thus, we had a pretty good understanding of how their system worked, who the people were, and what they thought about a variety of things. That was a very different situation from dealing with North Korea today, where there is hardly anybody in the U.S. system who has dealt directly with its leaders. I’m not sure any senior American official has ever met with Kim Jong Un face to face. That’s a very different situation, and it makes it a more difficult situation to manage. So the consequences of mismanaging the crisis are quite as severe, but the difficulty of managing it is greater.

William Shi CMC '20Student Journalist

Featured Image by Bwag (Self-photographed) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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