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Don’t Worry, Rocket Man and Dotard Are Still in Control

Donald Trump probably didn’t intend to put Elton John back into the Top 40. And Kim Jong-Un wouldn’t know he sent people to the dictionary to learn about an arcane word.

While the name-calling may be fun to watch, it marks an escalation in a verbal exchange between the leaders. Many people are unnerved by Trump’s exchange of insults with Kim Jong-Un, but this rhetoric battle might not lead to the worst scenario—at least not yet.

On September 19, the U.S. president dialed up the rhetoric at the United Nations General Assembly, calling North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un a “rocket man” who is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime, and threatening that the United States would “totally destroy North Korea” if necessary.

North Korea responded to Trump’s U.N. speech two days later, with a rare personal statement from its leader. Kim verbally fired back at Trump, and referred to him as a “dotard,” a word meaning an old person who is weak-minded or senile. Kim’s statement also said that North Korea would consider “the highest level of hardline countermeasure in history.”

These remarks from both sides should surprise no one, and people learn to live with aggressive rhetoric. After all, words do not mean actions.

Trump clearly likes making bombastic comments, such as saying he’ll build a wall on the border with Mexico, but he may have found it difficult to live up to his promises. He also specializes in giving nicknames to his opponents, and that’s how we got from “Little Marco” to “Crooked Hillary.” Trump is not running against “Rocket Man” this time, but the same tactic applies. He’s simply trying to get Kim to stop missile testing and his nuclear program, while at the same time pleasing his domestic supporters.

North Korea also has long insulted world leaders, sometimes using gutter language. It previously called President Barack Obama a “monkey in a tropical forest” and former President Park Geun-hye of South Korea a “crafty prostitute.” The obscure word “dotard” to taunt Trump is demented and is a new addition to the collection. Much as Trump’s aggressive rhetoric about North Korea appeals to his supporters and Kim needs to demonstrate to the country that he is not backing down from foreign provocations.

Despite the bluster, we should know that a serious military confrontation is not imminent.

On one side, the Trump administration does not want to move to a war footing, as the cost would be enormous to the United States and its allies South Korea and Japan. On the other side, North Korea simply seeks long-term survival through its nuclear program, and it is unlikely to initiate an offensive nuclear strike against the United States or its allies. If it does, the counter response would be the end of the Kim regime.

Kim Jong-Un surely knows the risks of provoking a war with the United States. It did not go well for his grandfather when he confidently provoked the Korean War (1950-1953). North Korea’s Kim II-sung promised Joseph Stalin, the head of Soviet Union, that the North would take over the South in three days and Americans would not intervene. Instead, the two Koreas have not yet reunified and American troops remain in South Korea. The shattering family history of war suggests Kim Jong-Un shouldn’t repeat the same bloody mistake.

Some commentators say the extreme rhetoric accelerates the seriousness of tensions. For instance, North Korea’s foreign minister Ri Yong-ho said Pyongyang had the right to shoot down American bombers as President Trump had “declared war” on North Korea. However North Korea did nothing when American B-1B long-range bombers, escorted by F-15 fighter jets, prowled along North Korea’s airspace in a show of force. Either because of the North’s air-defense incapability to detect or it might have been an attempt to avoid an accidental clash.

Mocking their opponents remains a critical strategy for both Kim and Trump. But neither is likely to commit to a violent course of action. No matter how reckless verbal attacks are, the strategic calculation in their minds is still rational especially when both sides are nuclear-armed. At the end of the day, there would be no winners or losers in a nuclear war on the peninsula.