Anxiety over nuclear weapons is rising as President Trump deals with growing volatility on the Korean peninsula.
Trump’s past statements in support of a buildup of nuclear weapons, combined with North Korea’s increasingly bellicose rhetoric, have stoked fears about how the situation will unfold.
“I think there’s a cycle of concern and anxiety that comes when North Korea is conducting tests,” said Alexandra Bell, senior policy director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. “But I do think there’s a little more concern now because this administration has a different approach to dealing with and talking about North Korea.”
The president’s famed unpredictability has sharpened the public’s attention on the standoff, with fears of an escalating nuclear crisis evident everywhere from social media to gallows humor on “Saturday Night Live.”
The sketch show, which frequently jabs at Trump, twice joked Saturday about potential nuclear war with North Korea. In the opening sketch, Alec Baldwin as Trump joked that “this could all be over by Monday.” Later, Melissa McCarthy as White House press secretary Spicer quipped that “the president’s probably going to bomb North Korea tonight,” so people “should just eat as much candy as you want because this is probably our last Easter on earth.”
Tensions on the Korean peninsula have soared amid satellite imagery indicating that Pyongyang is preparing for its sixth nuclear test.
Though the test has yet to happen, a celebration in North Korea over the weekend included several displays military might, including a failed missile launch. On Saturday, missiles were paraded in front of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Vice President Pence separately visited the demilitarized zone and warned that the Obama administration’s policy of “strategic patience” for North Korea was coming to an end.
Trump has done little to lower the temperature. In a Twitter post Tuesday, he said that the United States would be willing to engage with North Korea if it’s “looking for trouble.” And in a post Thursday, he wrote he expressed confidence that Chinese leadership will rein in North Korea, but “if they are unable to do so, the U.S., with its allies, will!”
Spicer insisted Monday that Trump’s comments and tweets haven’t added to the tense situation with North Korea.
“I don’t think that that’s there,” Spicer said at the press briefing. “I think we’re taking all the appropriate and prudent steps.”
Spicer also said he doesn’t anticipate Trump drawing “red lines” in North Korea, a statement that appeared to be aimed at tamping down concerns of Trump taking military action.
“Drawing red lines hasn’t really worked in the past,” Spicer said.
But Spicer declined to spell out what steps the administration is considering and, like Trump, would not take military options off the table.
“He holds his card close to the vest, and I think you’re not going to see him telegraphing how he’s going to respond to any military or other situation going forward,” Spicer said. “That’s just something he believes that has not served us well in the past.”
North Korea, meanwhile, was strident in its rhetoric on Monday. North Korea’s deputy UN ambassador, Kim In-ryong, said at a news conference that the United States was turning the Korean peninsula into “the world’s biggest hotspot” and creating “a dangerous situation in which a thermonuclear war may break out at any moment.”
He said his country “is ready to react to any mode of war desired by the U.S.”
North Korea conducted more than 20 missile tests and two nuclear tests last year.
Many nuclear experts found it worrisome during the campaign when Trump insisted in multiple interviews a need to be “unpredictable” with nuclear weapon use. He also refused to rule out using such munitions on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and in Europe.
During a town hall with Chris Matthews of MSNBC in March 2016, Trump said he would be very, “very slow and hesitant to pull [the] trigger” on using a nuclear weapon. But when asked whether he would ever use nuclear weapons in Europe, he said he’s “not taking any cards off the table.”
In addition, Trump has moved away from past administrations’ stated goal of reducing nuclear arsenals around the world.
Trump has said instead that the United States “may well be better off” if more countries — including Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia — developed their own nuclear weapons instead of using U.S. dollars to protect them.
Jon Wolfsthal, a member of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ Science and Security Board that manages the famed Doomsday Clock, said Trump’s comments have contributed to greater anxiety even as the threat posed by North Korea remains the same.
“Anxiety is up, but the threat is not,” said Wolfsthal, a senior director for arms control and nonproliferation at the National Security Council under former President Obama. “People are right to be worried, but it’s not as if a parade or a missile test or even a nuclear test fundamentally changes the nature of the threat.”
The group moved the Doomsday Clock 30 seconds closer to midnight after Trump took office, in part because of Trump’s past comments about nuclear weapons. The clock now stands at 2.5 minutes to midnight, which is nuclear destruction.
Wolfsthal said Trump advisors such as Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster are likely explaining the high risks of conducting a military strike against North Korea.
“To date, everything he’s done suggests he’s going to talk to big and then fall back,” Wolfsthal said of Trump, citing policy flips such as on NATO. “Donald TrumpDonald TrumpCotton booed over Trump’s tax returnsNuclear anxiety grows with North Korea standoffTehran intends to exploit anti-Trump sentimentsMORE rhetorically likes a big punch line, but then adopts a more reasonable, centrist approach.”