Asia on edge after sharp exchange of rhetoric by Washington, Pyongyang

Asia on edge after sharp exchange of rhetoric by Washington, Pyongyang
Photos: AP and NYT

Asia on edge after sharp exchange of rhetoric by Washington, Pyongyang

SEOUL — United States President Donald Trump’s threat to unleash “fire and fury” against North Korea sent a shudder through Asia yesterday, raising alarm among allies and adversaries and, to some observers, making the possibility of military conflict over the North’s nuclear programme seem more real.

With North Korea responding that it would, if attacked, strike American military forces in Guam, analysts warned that the escalating statements increased the likelihood of war — perhaps one based on miscalculation, should one side’s fiery rhetoric be misread by the other.

Some played down Mr Trump’s remark on Tuesday as simply a warning not to attack the US, albeit one whose tone was more typical of North Korean propagandists than it was of past American presidents.

Still, some in the region said that the danger of war had not seemed as clear and present in decades. What was unthinkable just years ago no longer seems so, they said.

“We’re going to see a confrontation between the United States and North Korea that will be ferocious and strong and bloody,” said Mr Cheng Xiaohe, an associate professor of international relations at Renmin University of China in Beijing. He called Mr Trump’s language “explosive”, and said the threat and counter-threat had resulted in a new stage of confrontation.

Mr Cheng said that he was also puzzled by the timing of Mr Trump’s remark, just days after the United Nations Security Council imposed the toughest economic penalties yet on North Korea for its nuclear and missile programmes.

That unanimous vote, which overcame China’s historical reluctance to harshly punish its ally, has been widely described as the Trump administration’s greatest diplomatic accomplishment so far.

“Usually, the US government is willing to give more time for a resolution, to see how the resolutions bite,” said Mr Cheng.

Across the region, analysts reacted with concern and even foreboding about the tone of Mr Trump’s comments, as well as about the unimpeded progress North Korea appears to be making towards becoming a full-fledged nuclear power, able to strike the US or other far-off adversaries.

While Mr Trump’s warning that North Korea, if it kept threatening the United States, would “be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen” clearly reflected growing American frustration over the North’s advances, analysts said it was not clear that he had fully considered the implications of such strong language.

That, they said, raised questions about the administration’s strategy, and about whether Mr Trump recognised the price that some of America’s staunchest allies, especially Japan and South Korea, could pay for carrying out his threat.

“Trump doesn’t seem to understand what an alliance is, and doesn’t seem to consider his ally when he says those things,” said Mr Lee Byong-chul, a senior fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul. “No American president has mentioned a military option so easily, so offhandedly as he has. He unnerves people in South Korea, few of whom want war in Korea.”

Officials in Asia and beyond have grown used to provocative musings by Mr Trump, particularly on Twitter, and they tend to ignore them or to treat them as inaccurate reflections of American policy. But analysts saw his “fire and fury” remark as dangerous and unlikely to deter North Korea’s leader, Mr Kim Jong-un.

“We are used to painting North Korea as ‘unpredictable’, but increasingly it is the US that is introducing strategic unpredictability into a volatile dynamic,” wrote Mr Euan Graham, an analyst at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, Australia, in an email.

Mr Cheng of Renmin University said that North Korea’s defiance in response to the Security Council’s latest sanctions indicated that it had no intention of slowing its programme. He said that nations across the region, including his own, needed to start preparing for the consequences of a conflict.“We are in a very dangerous time, and China is going to need to ... prepare for the worst,” he said.

Even so, Mr Trump’s language resonated deeply in Japan, which yesterday commemorated the 72nd anniversary of an American atomic bomb being dropped on Nagasaki at the end of World War II, three days after unleashing one on Hiroshima.

“The world has seen American fire and fury in Hiroshima and Nagasaki 72 years ago,” Mr Kiichi Fujiwara, a professor of international politics at Tokyo University, wrote bitingly on Twitter. THE NEW YORK TIMES