North Korean leader Kim Jong Un salutes during a visit to the Ministry of the People's Armed Forces on the occasion of the new year, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on Jan. 10, 2016.
Photo by KCNA/Reuters

Trump threatens via Twitter to ‘solve the problem’ in North Korea

A friend asked me the other day whether I believe Mike Pence would be a better president than Donald Trump, if the current president were forced from office as a result of the Russia scandal. I’ll tell you what I told him: I think Pence is ill-suited for the Oval Office, but he seems less likely than Trump to start a war via Twitter.

And with that in mind, the president once again turned to his favorite social-media app this morning.
Less than a week after authorizing a missile strike against Syria, President Trump took to social media Tuesday to rattle the saber at North Korea and its nuclear program.

“North Korea is looking for trouble,” Trump tweeted. “If China decides to help, that would be great. If not, we will solve the problem without them! U.S.A.”
In context, I’m reasonably certain the “U.S.A.” reference was Trump’s way of repeating the patriotic chant to himself, as if he were doing an impression of Stephen Colbert’s old character on the “Colbert Report.”

And while I’m sympathetic to the argument that reacting to every random Trump tweet is generally a pointless mistake, it’s not unreasonable to argue that international nuclear diplomacy shouldn’t be conducted by confused amateur presidents, 140 characters at a time.

This is especially true after the U.S. military ordered an aircraft carrier group to move closer to the Korean Peninsula over the weekend.

During the presidential transition process, just a few days before Christmas, Trump said in a tweet, “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” No one had any idea what he was talking about – in fact, it’s still something of a mystery – though it very likely got North Korea’s attention.

The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent had a good piece on this at the time, speaking to some arms-control experts.
Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear non-proliferation expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, points out that in peacetime, any belligerent Trump Tweet about nuclear weapons might not appear as alarming, simply because “confirmation bias” might lead key actors not to interpret it in its most frightening light at that moment. Amid rising international tensions, though, that confirmation bias might work in the other direction, he says.

“Imagine we’re in a crisis – if he recklessly tweets, people could read these things in the worst possible light,” Lewis tells me. “The North Koreans have a plan to use nuclear weapons very early in a conflict. They’re not going to wait around. If they think we are going, they’re going to use nuclear weapons against South Korea and Japan.”

Some reports have indicated that President Obama privately told Trump that one of the greatest national security predicaments he will face as president is North Korea’s escalating nuclear potential. But Trump’s Tweet suggests an inability to appreciate that Twitter is far too blunt instrument to handle dangerously sensitive, complex international challenges, and indeed could lead to misunderstandings – and potential catastrophe.
That was in late December. Soon after, Trump published additional provocative tweets about North Korea, and here we are in April, watching the president engaged in yet another round of online saber-rattling.

In case this isn’t painfully obvious, making an already volatile situation worse – on purpose, through Twitter – is profoundly dangerous. There’s literally no evidence to suggest the president has any idea what he’s doing.