North Korean leaders correctly assessed those threats as empty, never sending the countries careening into an unintended war. And the threats didn’t seem to affect American credibility. It’s not clear that Mr. Trump, by upgrading the adjectives in his own threats, changes much.
Americans might have strong views about what makes Mr. Trump different from his predecessors. But in Pyongyang, where the nuances of American politics and personalities are less familiar, those distinctions are likely less front-of-mind.
Words matter in international relations, but actions matter far more.
Current American action, or lack thereof, sends a message of calm and caution, rather than “fire and fury.”
States have a hard time reading one another’s internal politics, so they tend to rely heavily on reading one another’s actions for clues as to their intentions. And American action toward North Korea remains unchanged. American troops in nearby Guam and Japan are still in their barracks. Naval warships are holding a respectful distance.
These are the sorts of signals, not a leader’s offhand comments, that matter most in international relations. Washington is sending a clear, consistent message to Pyongyang that the United States still wants to avoid escalation.
Though North Korea has returned Mr. Trump’s threat with its own against Guam, the country’s actions suggest it is only for show.
No one has an incentive to escalate, and all sides understand this.
Wars can happen when states conclude, rightly or wrongly, that the other side might see conflict is in its interests. This can lead them to prepare for war, making it likelier that an accident or miscalculation could send them stumbling into one. But that is not the case now.
North Korea’s interests are to…