KCNA KCNA / Reuters
foretold a thermonuclear war with North Korea. Asked about the north's recent missile tests, he said Pyongyang had "best not make any more threats to the US", or "they will be met with fire and fury and frankly power the likes of which the world has never seen before".Though the relationship between the US and North Korea can hardly be called stable, this so-far-rhetorical escalation is something new. Washington has rarely, if ever, used language infuriating and colourful enough to match Pyongyang's style, but times have changed. One news outlet has even set up a game called Who said it: Donald Trump or Kim Jong-un? While this would all be amusing if it wasn't for real, the world is facing the real possibility of instability, military escalation, and a potential nuclear conflict that could cause millions of casualties. In an ironic role reversal, many are now pondering whether Trump's US is in fact any more rational than Kim's North Korea. Still, it's easy to forget that the north has been developing nuclear weapons for the better part of the last two decades. While the current situation has been precipitated by a volley of tit-for-tat missile tests, UN sanctions and tweets, Pyongyang's overall nuclear strategy and propaganda style has hardly changed. So what should we make of Pyongyang's current nuclear rhetoric? What does it say about the government - and where it might lead?
Loud and clearAs do most totalitarian governments, North Korea speaks through various spokespeople - but with one voice. Over the years, its messages have been communicated clearly and without divergence to the rest of the world by foreign ministers, officials from the Korean People's Army, or the three Kims themselves. To this effect, North Korea's goals have been articulated clearly and publicly. At the Seventh Workers' Party Congress in 2016, Kim Jong-Un put it very bluntly:
We will consistently take hold on the strategic line of simultaneously pushing forward the economic construction and the building of nuclear force and boost self-defensive nuclear force both in quality and quantity as long as the imperialists persist in their nuclear threat and arbitrary practice.These messages are disseminated within the north by official press outlets, such as Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party, and abroad via the English-language Korean Central News Agency. Since these channels are all tightly controlled, the Kim government usually communicates quite consistently, its stock-in-trade being a high daily dose of anti-US and anti-Japan rhetoric laced with acerbic takes on South Korea and self-aggrandising reports on its own policies and accomplishments. Pyongyang's claims about its nuclear programme have followed a similar pattern. Take this piece, from July 1, 2017:
The claims made have also been remarkably consistent over the years, centring on the need to develop nuclear weapons to avoid a potential American preemptive strike and mentioned in more than 400 similar articles by the KCNA over the past two decades. On May 31, 2017, it had this to say:[North Korea] has towered as a world's power with military strength and self-fortitude based on the single-minded unity and nuclear force which no other country and nation have achieved.
[North Korea] had access to the nuclear deterrent for self-defence, according to its independent decision as it was badly needed for preserving its dignity and vital rights from the nuclear threat posed by the US.The north is also adamant that its nuclear arsenal is not intended for use as a bargaining chip (though it has been in the past, especially during the Six-Party Talks when they were functioning). This was most recently reported on August 7 via an official North Korean mission statement at the United Nations, and on the same day by Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho's message at the ASEAN Regional Forum: "We will, under no circumstances, put the nukes and ballistic rockets on the negotiating table." So is the world really closer to a nuclear apocalypse than it was just a week ago?