October 2017’s joint WPF employees of the month are North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un (alias ‘Rocket Man’) and US President Donald Trump (alias ‘The Dotard’) for their collaborative contribution to bringing the world noticeably closer to nuclear apocalypse.

Those who follow such matters have been used to extravagant, blood-curdling rhetoric from North Korea for a long time. The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA)’s press releases are regularly spattered with vows to “mercilessly destroy” or “ruthlessly annihilate” the enemies of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), namely the Imperialist Americans and their ‘puppets’ in Seoul (and frequently the equally Imperialist Japanese for good measure). They probably have competitions for who can come up with the most fiery expression of the month. It’s almost like their way of making small talk, and policy-makers and analysts in the west routinely discount it as noise intended primarily for domestic consumption, and not any real statement of intent.

Now, though, the US, or at least the 45th President, has decided to join in the rhetorical competition. “Fire and fury like the world has never seen”. “Totally destroy North Korea”. “They won’t be around much longer”. Military options are “locked and loaded”. And the difference is, no-one is quite sure if this is also merely empty rhetoric, or something Trump might actually follow through on.

North Korea’s nuclear program has been advancing faster than most analysts thought possible. They now have powerful nuclear warheads, possibly including a thermonuclear (hydrogen) bomb, far more powerful than the fission-type bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They have ICBMs, possibly capable of reaching the US mainland, although it is not clear if they have solved the re-entry problem for delivering a warhead successfully. The biggest remaining technical obstacle to having a functioning nuclear arsenal that could be credibly deployed at long range is miniaturizing a warhead so that it can fit onto an ICBM. We don’t know if they’ve got there yet, but there can be little doubt that they will get there before long.

Successive US administrations have made it clear that they will not allow North Korea to become a nuclear weapons state. Trump has been even more vocal in his determination to ‘sort out’ the North Korea problem. But as virtually all analysts have emphasized, the military options for the US are terrible, even without nuclear weapons in the mix; no US and allied attack could hope to take out the vast range of North Korean artillery stationed near the Demilitarized Zone, well within range of Seoul, before they unleashed devastating damage on the city, whose metropolitan area is home to 24 million people.

We might take comfort in the thought that the Generals in Trump’s administration, like Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Advisor Herbert McMaster, whom he appears to trust and respect, will keep his wilder impulses in check. But McMaster has also made ominous noises that there is indeed a military option for North Korea, saying “We’ve been kicking the can down the road, and we’re out of road”. Ramped-up sanctions may do significant damage to the DPRK economy, but few believe it will lead them to change course.

Meanwhile, Trump and Kim trade threats and insults across the UN General Assembly floor, while the DPRK nuclear program steadily advances. With the potential for meaningful talks further away than ever, the best it seems we can hope for is that the situation will continue to bump along at a state of heightened tension without actually breaking out into war.

One thing’s for sure, even if ‘Little Rocket Man’ Kim and ‘Dotard’ Trump don’t bring about nuclear apocalypse, they are certainly raising global anxiety levels with every speech, tweet and press release.

They are therefore the clear joint winners of World Peace Foundation’s October Employee of the Month award.

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