U.S. President Donald J. Trump delivered a go-it-alone message emphasizing the importance of sovereignty and self-defense at the United Nations this week. It hit many themes that should have appealed to North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un -- with the exception of his blistering language. “The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea,” Trump declared.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 19, 2017
Not one to back down from a threat, Kim Jong-Un released an unprecedented personal statement, taking offense to Trump’s insulting language and stating that he “will consider with seriousness exercising a corresponding, highest level of hard-line countermeasure in history.” The North Korean foreign minister hinted at the possibility of a North Korean thermonuclear test over the Pacific Ocean.
If there is a silver lining to this war of words, it is that both Trump and Kim now have each other’s direct attention, even while they trade invective.
But now that the temperature of the U.S.-DPRK relationship appears to have reached a boiling point, there is an urgent need for expanded diplomatic dialogue to prevent the increased risks of miscalculation and clearly establish the ground rules of nuclear deterrence between both sides.
The major obstacle to diplomacy over the past decade has been North Korea’s abandonment of denuclearization as an objective, while the U.S. insists on it. North Korea's clear embrace of nuclear development under Kim Jong Un as a source of domestic legitimation and as an antidote to his country’s military weakness has hogtied any talks.
But the extraordinary personal exchange between Trump and Kim should underscore the clear miscommunication risks between the two men as well as the need for expanded bandwidth to manage the crisis.
Huge risk of miscommunication
Trump’s misunderstanding of Kim Jong Un was reflected in his assertion that “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and his regime” for two reasons. First, because Kim seeks to survive by removing his vulnerability to external attack and second, because Trump’s epithets constitute a direct challenge to North Korea’s leader-first system in which no one is allowed to insult the “supreme dignity” of Kim Jong Un.
But Kim clearly does not grasp the extent to which the Trump administration finds Kim’s threats to “surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged U.S. dotard with fire” or other statements hinting at offensive use of nuclear capabilities to be intolerable.
Once it is clear that North Korea has a reliable capability to directly strike the U.S. with a nuclear weapon, the risks of war due to miscalculation are likely to increase, not decrease, despite Kim's desire to stand toe-to-toe as a nuclear equal. This is magnified by a misunderstanding over intentions, uncertainty regarding North Korea’s nuclear doctrine, and the increasing focus on both sides on how to preempt worst case actions by the other.
The only way to reduce the risks of miscalculation is to expand communication regarding how either side views provocative acts by the other.
Continue the 'conversation'
In the near term, both countries are likely to persist taking actions that may shape any future negotiation over North Korea’s nuclear status. So North Korea will continue with its testing, while the United States will continue with its economic sanctions.
At the same time, both sides increasingly need to put into place safeguards to help manage the inordinate risks of tension escalation. Neither country will likely be willing to give up its efforts to shape the outcome of negotiations, yet there is a need to establish solid lines of communication as a means of reducing the risk of accidental war.
At a minimum, Trump and Kim need to find a way to continue the conversation they have now started with a focus on how to reduce misunderstanding and risks of nuclear miscalculation, preferably in a less public and bombastic form.
This post originally appeared on Forbes.