When it comes to the prospect of nuclear war between the U.S. and North Korea, the good news is there is no “button,” the figurative missile launching mechanism that triggered the latest beef between Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump. But there’s also bad news: Both leaders do have the capability to unleash nuclear annihilation at a moment’s notice.
Trump is accompanied at all times by the “nuclear football,” a black satchel that includes tweet-length launch codes for America’s nuclear arsenal, which includes more than 400 missiles on constant standby, each carrying warheads 20 times more powerful than the bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima. There’s no stopping Trump if he ever decides to give the order.
In his annual New Year’s address, Kim Jong Un boasted that a "nuclear button is on my office desk all the time.” He also said North Korea’s forces should be “ready for immediate nuclear counterattack to cope with the enemy’s maneuvers for a nuclear war.”
But Joshua Pollack, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said Kim wasn’t speaking literally about the button.
“The button is a metaphor,” Pollack said. “There’s nowhere in the world that I know of where there is a button. Since he doesn’t sit at his desk 24 hours a day, I’m pretty sure he’s got some kind of command and control arrangement that follows him around, the same as the U.S. president and the Russian president.”
Trump clearly missed the metaphor. He tweeted Tuesday, “Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”
The fallout quickly overshadowed other key aspects of Kim’s speech, most notably his surprise extension of an olive branch to South Korea. Kim offered to hold a rare meeting with officials from Seoul to discuss the upcoming Winter Olympics, set for Feb. 9-25 in PyeongChang, South Korea.
The overture was vague but widely interpreted as a signal that North Korea is willing to behave — no missile tests, nuclear detonations, or assassinations — if its athletes are allowed to compete at the games.
"A very deft political move"
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who campaigned on the promise of improved relations with Pyongyang, has jumped at the chance to open high-level talks for the first time since December 2015. But North Korea experts in the U.S. are divided on whether this is a positive development. On one hand, it’s a rare chance for dialogue that doesn’t include threats of nuclear annihilation. On the other hand, Kim’s offer likely comes with significant strings attached, and accepting it could further upset Trump.
“His outreach to South Korea was a very deft political move,” said Abe Denmark, director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “It exploits South Korean interest and enthusiasm for engagement with the North while also exploiting Seoul’s fears of disrupting the Olympics.”
“They realize they look a little too menacing and this helps the U.S. enlist other countries to try to isolate them”
Aside from the “button” comment and his usual bluster, Kim, a noted sports fanatic, struck a relatively warm tone in his address, “earnestly” wishing the upcoming games “a success.” At the same time, he made it clear that South Korea should “discontinue all the nuclear war drills they stage with outside forces,” and “desist from doing anything that might aggravate the situation.” Many experts read the latter comment as a request for Seoul to cancel or postpone its annual military exercises with the U.S.
Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korea Studies and director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, said calling off or rescheduling the drills is “not a prospect the Pentagon is not going to easily or willingly entertain.”
“The temptation Kim is offering to South Korea,” Synder said, “is, ‘Would you trade something that is of long-term value to your security for the short-term benefit of enjoying a successful Olympics? That’s what the demand is.”
Trump has worked to isolate and punish the Kim regime with sanctions, and he claimed on Twitter that this approach was what caused the North Koreans to seek talks. Joshua Stanton, a lawyer who previously worked for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and helped draft sanctions against North Korea, said bilateral talks between the North and South would undermine that strategy.
“In one day, by making one small gesture that is insignificant and ephemeral and will mean nothing the day those athletes go home from PyeongChang, the North Koreans have managed to divide the U.S. and South Korea,” Stanton said.
Notably, Kim’s speech squared solely on meeting South Korea, and did not make a similar overture to Trump. With the exception of some off-script comments from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Trump and his team have made it clear that denuclearization is a precondition for talks with North Korea. Kim’s remarks emphasized his belief that North Korea now considers itself a nuclear power and deserves to be treated as such.
“They really see Trump as a lost cause”
“They really see Trump as a lost cause and they’re not going to waste their breath on him,” said Pollack. He added that Kim’s comment about the “nuclear button,” might’ve garnered the most headlines, but the more subtle takeaway was that North Korea would only use its nukes to retaliate — not launch a unilateral attack, a scenario that Trump’s National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and others view as justification for a “preventative war.”
“They realize they look a little too menacing and this helps the U.S. enlist other countries to try to isolate them,” Pollack said. “They’re emphasizing, this isn’t a threat to global security, it’s to help ensure their own security. It’s not something you should worry about unless you’re the United States and planning an invasion.”
Like Stanton, Pollack believes Kim sees the Olympics “as an opportunity to crack the alliance” with the U.S., but not everyone agrees with that assessment. Michael Madden, founder of the website NK Leadership Watch, said that even if the U.S. is stuck on the sidelines, having North Korea in the Winter Games could be beneficial.
“President Trump should welcome this,” said Madden, who is also a visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins University’s U.S.-Korea Institute. “This will take some of the pressure off the ‘I’ve got a button’ comments and whatever other war of words is going on. This is going to put the south in the driver's seat, just for the games.”
Madden noted that a thawing of relations between North and South Korea during the Olympics has the potential to “overshadow everything else in terms of what goes on with the sports,” and said it’s better than the alternative. “Do we want the Koreans killing each other?” Madden asked. “Or do we want them talking to each other and figure skating and bobsledding together?”