x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 18 August 2017

World awaits next move between Trump and Kim Jong-un

As the leaders of the USA and North Korea engage in a dangerous game of nuclear chess, diplomatic moves continue

North Korean missile launchers are paraded in Pyongyang. The world is waiting to see how the current impasse between the US and North Korea will be resolved
North Korean missile launchers are paraded in Pyongyang. The world is waiting to see how the current impasse between the US and North Korea will be resolved

Any hope of de-escalation in the war of words between Donald Trump and North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un faded as the America president promised "big, big trouble" if North Korea attacked Guam.

Mr Trump issued a direct warning via Twitter to Kim Jong-un, telling him US armed forces were "locked and loaded", should North Korea dare to carry out threats to fire missiles close to America's island territory in the Pacific.

In a subsequent retweet, Mr Trump was even more specific, highlighting the presence of US Air Force B-1B bombers stationed on the Pacific island of Guam, which have flown joint missions with Japanese and South Korean fighter jets in recent days.

It was the president's most explicit warning of military action in a week of escalating rhetoric as both sides raised the stakes in their nuclear standoff, with North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency accusing Mr Trump of “driving the situation on the Korean peninsula to the brink of a nuclear war.”

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Russia, China and Germany all expressed concern at the rhetoric coming from both countries, while the US and South Korea said they would go ahead with military exercises planned for later in the month.

In a late night telephone call with Mr Trump on Friday, China's president, Xi Jinping, agreed that North Korea must stop provocative behaviour but urged all parties to maintain restraint and avoid remarks and actions that could escalate tension. According to a White House readout  the two presidents reiterated their mutual commitment to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and affirmed the importance of  a recent United Nations resolution in the quest for peace and stability. 

The phone call between the two leaders came as Japan set up a missile-defence system in western areas of the country. The deployment of four Patriot interceptors in the Shimane, Ehime, Hiroshima and Kochi prefectures began on Friday and was expected to be completed Saturday, a spokesman for Japan’s ministry of defence said. 

At the same time it emerged that Washington and Pyongyang were communicating via a back channel set up via the North Korean mission to the United Nations in New York.

Whatever is being said in private, back at his New Jersey golf club, Mr Trump's mood for public consumption remained as uncompromising as ever as he threatened force for the third time in as many days.  

"If he utters one threat in the form of an overt threat — which by the way he has been uttering for years and his family has been uttering for years — or he does anything with respect to Guam or anyplace else that's an American territory or an American ally, he will truly regret it and he will regret it fast,” he said. 

He has already promised to rain down “fire and fury” on North Korea, which responded by threatening to launch missiles in the direction of Guam, an American territory in the Pacific Ocean.

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Analysts said the string of threats risked backing Mr Trump into a corner of his own making and raised the chances of an accidental confrontation.

Rodger Baker, vice president of strategic analysis at Stratfor, said Mr Trump appeared to be following a clear US strategy to demonstrate it was serious about taking military action. The aim was to deter North Korea from pursuing nuclear weapons that could strike the American mainland and to raise the regional stakes for China, encouraging it to take a tougher stance.

“That said, I’m not sure the military or the state department would like him to make quite the statements he is making and in the way he’s making them,” Mr Baker said. “When he said ‘if they threaten us we’ll rain down fire and fury’ well the next day they threatened us and we didn’t rain down fire and fury, so now he has to redefine what threatened means.”

For its part, Pyongyang says it is finalising a plan to launch missiles at locations just off the coast of Guam, about 3400km away. The Pacific island has issued instructions for residents to protect themselves against missile strikes.

“If an attack warning is issued, take cover as quickly as you can, under concrete structure or below ground if possible, and stay there until instructed to do otherwise,” says the fact sheet.

If caught outside, it recommends taking cover behind anything that might offer protection. "Lie flat on the ground and cover your head. If the explosion is some distance away, it could take 30 seconds or more for the blast wave to hit," it continues before advising residents to change their clothes and shower in order to reduce the risk from radioactive particles.

Many islanders shrugged off the verbal sparring as empty threats but admitted to a growing sense of unease.

“I’m rather worried," Tony Champaco, 19, a University of Guam student, told the island’s newspaper The Pacific Daily News. "I hope things (are) settled … the best way possible. I hope both sides come to an agreement that … World War III doesn’t happen."

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Mr Trump’s rhetoric has been growing more heated ever since reports emerged that American analysts believed North Korea had miniaturised its nuclear weapons to the point where they could be fitted on intercontinental ballistic missiles. Pyongyang’s rapid advances bring closer the day when it has the capability to launch a nuclear strike on the US mainland.

Mr Trump responded with a warning he would unleash “fire and fury” if North Korea did not back down. Even as officials scrambled to moderate his fiery language, he turned up the heat another notch, declaring his warning had not been “tough enough”.

His secretary of state is among those trying to dampen growing fears of war. "Nothing that I have seen and nothing that I know of would indicate that the situation has dramatically changed in the last 24 hours," said Rex Tillerson.

The different messages have repercussions for America’s image in the world, where other nations see the president's bluster contradicted by cabinet-level officials, according to Paul Fritz, assistant professor of political at Hofstra University.

“Trump may think he is playing this game and exerting American power but in fact he is undermining the basis of American leadership and credibility in the world,” he said.

The two sides have managed to keep a line of communication open. It runs through Joseph Yun, the US envoy for North Korea policy, and Pak Song Il, part of Pyongyang’s mission to the UN. It has been used to negotiate prisoner releases in the past but has been unable to defuse tension so far.

Meanwhile, nations in the region are increasing their state of readiness. Thousands of Chinese troops have reinforced the border with North Korea while Japan, which lies beneath the flight path from to Guam, has begun deploying Patriot interceptors. 

As for President Trump, his latest musingfrom the golf course was unusually unflustered. “Hopefully it will all work out. Nobody loves a peaceful solution better than President Trump,” he said. “We will see what happens. We think that lots of good things could happen, and we could also have a bad solution.”

additional reporting by Bloomberg.