DURING HIS visit to South Korea last weekend, President Clinton made one of the most explicit threats to annihilate a country any president has made in the nuclear age.
Speaking of North Korea, which may be on its way to producing nuclear weapons, Mr. Clinton said, "We would quickly and overwhelmingly retaliate if they were to ever use, to develop and use nuclear weapons. It would mean the end of their country as they know it. They know that is what we are bound to do."
Just in case the North Koreans failed to get the message, Mr. Clinton repeated it during his visit to the Demilitarized Zone, observing, "It is pointless for them to try to develop nuclear weapons, because if they ever use them it would be the end of their country."
Certainly North Korea, with a population of some 21 million people and a territory scarcely the size of Mississippi, could be wiped off the map by a fraction of a percent of the American nuclear arsenal.
The North Koreans, of course, did get the message, and threatened unspecified retaliation. "If anyone dares to provoke us," the government-run Central News Agency stated, "we will immediately show him in practice what our bold decision is."
Jehovahlike threats by heads of state to obliterate nations are quite rare in the history of the nuclear age, nothwithstanding the fact it used to be the policy of both the United States and the Soviet Union to do just that in the event that the other attacked first. The first such threat was Truman's warning on the day the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima that if Japan did not surrender, the United States was "prepared to obliterate . . . rapidly and completely every productive enterprise the Japanese have above ground in any city."
Probably the most vivid subsequent threat was made by Nikita Khrushchev, who, at the height of the Berlin crisis of 1961, stated xTC that if there were war the Soviet Union would destroy not only "the orange groves of Italy but also the people who created them." Later, Khrushchev (who for some reason still seemed to have trees on his mind) said he would not hesitate to order his generals to "crush the NATO bases in Greece," adding, "And of course, they will not have mercy on the olive orchards or on the Acropolis . . . In cutting off the head, nobody worries about the hair."
(Khrushchev's distinction between the head and the hair of the victim of a beheading may well be the grisliest of all the nuclear threats so far.)
American presidents, in contrast, have tended to voice nuclear threats with a certain icy reserve. As far as I am aware, Mr. Clinton is the first since Truman to threaten explicitly the extinction of an offending country, although policy always provided for this. One of the bluntest threats was Kennedy's statement on national television during the Cuban missile crisis that the United States would consider an attack by the nuclear-armed missiles the Soviet Union had just secretly placed in Cuba "as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union."
Certainly such a response would have meant the "end" of the Soviet Union "as they knew it." However, Kennedy did not see fit to spell this out in his statement.
It's not hard to understand the circumspection of the American presidents. Given the capabilities of Soviet nuclear arsenals, any vivid depiction of that nation in ruins could only evoke instantly in the public mind a vision of the United States in ruins. Vivid threats, under those circumstances, felt like threats against oneself.
North Korea, however, cannot place the United States in such danger. With the end of the Cold War, the circumspection that went with it appears also to have ended, permitting Mr. Clinton to strike the jarring, ugly note that marred his first visit abroad as president.
Jonathan Schell is a syndicated columnist.