The past three days gave President Donald Trump reason to be very happy — and very angry — with North Korea.
On Saturday night, North Korea held a massive parade that noticeably didn’t include one of its scariest weapons: intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), which can likely hit the US mainland. The question is whether North Korean leader Kim Jong Un left them out of the celebration to placate Trump, or if the choice to leave out ICBMs had nothing to do with the US at all.
The next day, Bob Woodward, the legendary reporter whose book about the Trump presidency is coming out this week, noted during an interview that Trump had nearly tweeted an order to remove American families from South Korea.
Had the president actually hit “send” on that message, it may have ignited at best an international firestorm, and at worst a war with North Korea.
And despite seemingly improving relations between Washington and Pyongyang, NBC News reported on Monday that North Korea is continuing to develop nuclear bombs — and has tried to hide the progress. That could make Trump sour on his budding friendship with Kim, and harm negotiations between the two countries.
If you missed any of this because you’re celebrating a new year or you simply wanted to enjoy a politics-free weekend, no worries. We’ve got you covered.
North Korea likes to show off missiles during its national parades. In April 2017, for example, it displayed a new ICBM. Then three months later, Kim tested one of those missiles, which conceivably could strike any part of the United States.
So when Pyongyang held a parade on Saturday honoring the 70th anniversary of the country’s founding, the White House was watching to see if Kim would display any more ICBMs, sources told me. And Kim kept them away.
Instead, the two-hour parade in Kim Il Sung Square included tanks, artillery pieces, and multiple-rocket launchers, even though the majority of the celebration appeared to focus on economic growth.
That pleased Trump, who on Sunday tweeted, “This is a big and very positive statement from North Korea. Thank you Chairman Kim. We will both prove everyone wrong!”
But experts don’t necessarily agree that Kim was intending to send a positive message to the US.
“They kept the nuclear systems out because they don’t need to flaunt them anymore,” tweeted Vipin Narang, a nuclear expert at MIT. In other words, now that North Korea has proved it can most likely hit America with a nuclear weapon, there’s no need to signal to everyone — and Trump especially — that it can do so.
If true, that means North Korea may start to act like India, Pakistan, and Israel: The country may avoid talking about its nuclear capabilities, even though the world knows it has bombs.
So looking at this another way, North Korea just acted like an established nuclear power and received praise from Trump for it. That could lead Kim to think the US will accept North Korea’s arsenal as long as he doesn’t boast about it, which would solidify Pyongyang’s place as a nuclear power — and make Trump the president who gave his seal of approval.
Bob Woodward’s book Fear contains several horrifying examples of America’s broken foreign policy under Trump. But in an interview with CBS Sunday Morning, Woodward described another jaw-dropping revelation.
“He [Trump] drafts a tweet saying we were going to pull out dependents from South Korea — family members of the 28,000 people there,” Woodward told David Martin.
But Pyongyang secretly told the Trump administration it would view a withdrawal of dependents as the first signs of preparations for an attack on North Korea.
So if this is true, that’s astonishing.
North Korea would be somewhat justified for thinking that, as removing American noncombatants from a potential battlefield is a typical early move before a war. Woodward added that the Pentagon worried about Trump sending out that tweet. Ultimately, though, Trump didn’t send out the message because of how North Korea may have read the tweet.
Let that sink in: Trump’s itchy Twitter finger came close to possibly starting a war with North Korea. Not his bombastic speech at the United Nations in which he vowed to “totally destroy” North Korea, or his offhand vow to rain “fire and fury” on Pyongyang if it continued to threaten America or its allies, but his Twitter account.
Even worse, there’s no indication Trump was aware that his tweet might cause North Korea to panic. That means despite talk of improving relations between Washington and Pyongyang, both sides are a mere Trump tweet away from going to war.
The day after Trump met with Kim in June for their historic summit, the president tweeted, “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.” On Monday, it became even clearer that his tweet was premature.
NBC News reported that US intelligence says North Korea will make between five and eight new warheads this year. That’s about the same rate — six a year — that North Korea made before Trump met with Kim.
What’s worse, Pyongyang wants to hide this nuclear activity from the world, and most likely the United States, in part by moving those nuclear bombs out of facilities.
This led Bruce Bennett, a prominent North Korea expert at the RAND Corporation, to make a stark statement to NBC: “[Kim] has not frozen his nuclear program, and he has certainly not been denuclearizing; instead, he has been nuclearizing.”
This, perhaps, shouldn’t be so surprising. As Narang noted on Twitter, while Kim in his New Year’s Day speech said he wanted his country to focus on growing the economy, he also never promised to stop improving his nuclear arsenal.
North Korea will still “mass-produce nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles, the power and reliability of which have already been proved to the full, to give a spur to the efforts for deploying them for action,” Kim said.
The Trump administration, though, still says Kim promised to dismantle his nuclear operation. On Sunday’s Face the Nation program on CBS, Vice President Mike Pence said “we’re expecting a letter as we speak from Kim Jong Un communicating again as he did last week his reaffirmation of his commitment to denuclearization.”
Even if that letter comes, the old “it’s not what you say, it’s what you do” adage applies here: Kim may say he’s ready to give up his nuclear weapons, but he’s still making more.
Whether that’s just to gain more leverage with the US or is part of a longer con is still unclear. But what is clear is that North Korea remains a nuclear threat, regardless of what Trump may tweet.