When I first heard Donald Trump’s “fire and fury” quote, I assumed it was from Pyongyang.
This is the kind of rhetoric we usually hear on North Korean state television.
Kim Jong Un’s newscasters semi-regularly threaten to reduce Seoul and/or Washington to a “sea of flames”.
Perhaps President Trump thinks he’s talking in language the North Korean leader understands.
Believing, as he appears to, that he is one of the world’s greatest dealmakers, maybe this is all part of his strategy to bring the young ruler into line – ratchet up sanctions, threaten to rain down fire and fury, and wait for the other side to blink, for a cowed regime to beg for talks and agree to renounce its nuclear ambitions.
Except they won’t.
Here is why this kind of shouting match is dangerous.
The Kim regime’s survival, and its guiding ideology, is based on the premise that the country faces the constant threat of invasion and annihilation at the hands of evil American imperialists, which only its wise leadership can defend them from.
From nursery school upwards, children are taught that their nation stands, almost alone now, in defence of the global cause of socialism against the covetous foreign capitalists at the gate.
They are not told that their leader started the Korean War, they are told that they were attacked, and nearly destroyed, by the United States and their “puppet war maniacs” in Seoul, and that it could happen again at any time.
This is why they are told they need nuclear weapons – a powerful deterrent that will ensure their nation’s survival.
When the US President has himself been filmed threatening “fire and fury” he merely underlines the point – and reinforces why any sacrifices sanctions may bring are necessary.
The other problem with fiery ultimatums is what happens when you don’t follow through on them.
At the start of the year, then President-elect Trump dismissed North Korea’s declared aim to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
“It won’t happen,” he tweeted.
Well, it has happened. They test-fired two last month alone.
Within a couple of hours of Donald Trump’s warning not to make any more threats, on penalty of “fire and fury”, North Korea had already announced yet another detailed threat – that they were carefully examining plans to strike the US territory of Guam.
Taking issue with the President’s approach, Senator John McCain said: “You’ve got to be sure you can do what you say you’re going to do.”
Donald Trump must be well briefed that even the most targeted US military strike on North Korea risks spiralling into conflict on a scale not seen since the Second World War, just as Kim Jong Un must know that attacking Guam would be suicide.
But ramping up the rhetoric does nothing to calm nerves between two nuclear-armed states and risks miscalculation on both sides.
As Senator McCain concluded: “This is very, very, very serious.”