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Cherry blossoms and war drums: Trump's North Korean challenge

WASHINGTON - In Washington DC this spring, it is not only the season for cherry blossoms, but also of war drums. The focus: North Korea.

While war scenarios on the Korean peninsula are being crunched, there is one option that is not yet part of the conversation save for a few voices - that despite the aim of denuclearising the Korean peninsula, the best hope may be for the United States to learn to live with a nuclear-armed Korea. It may be able to get Pyongyang to freeze its weapons programme in exchange for guarantees.

But in the American context, it is too early for that conversation, analysts say. Diplomatic options including comprehensive sanctions must be exhausted first.

A window into the thinking of the current administration came on Tuesday as Republican Senator Cory Gardner struck a bellicose note at an event that gathered foreign policy and security experts from across a half dozen Washington DC-based think tanks to discuss President Donald Trump's Asia policy.

The senator from a small town in Colorado is on the Senate's foreign relations committee, and chairs a subcommittee on East Asia and the Pacific.

He said the US' show of force aimed at North Korea was welcome.

"I'm encouraged by the President's resolve," Mr Gardner said. "Beijing must be made to choose whether it wants to work with the US as a responsible leader to stop the madman in Pyongyang, or bear and acknowledge the consequences of keeping him in power."

The only problem with this sort of statement is that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un is probably not a "madman" and it may cause more harm than good to call him one.

The popular madman theory which crops up often in the media - a Fox News interviewer even asked President Trump this month whether Mr Kim was "mentally fit" - only distorts the discussion and can lead to dangerously wrong conclusions.

And analysts also widely agree that Beijing's influence is probably overstated.

In fact, a few voices are trying to inject a note of reality into the war talk.

"The long term objective of denuclearisation, that is to give up all your weapons, is not going to happen," said Mr Richard Fontaine, president of the Centre for a New American Security. "The idea that North Korea would give up their last deterrent is unfathomable. In exchange for what?"

Dr Michael Swaine, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, warned of the dangers of war talk.

"The option of using direct force against North Korea is totally self defeating," he said in the open forum.

"What is needed is a much more serious longer-term strategy, which talks about how you get to a freeze and then a cap, and ultimately denuclearisation, through a combination of policies that include positive and negative incentives aimed at both the North Koreans and the Chinese."

Senators and congressmen are due to be briefed by Mr Trump's security czars and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Wednesday (April 26) afternoon on Washington's options.

North Korea, which conducted artillery live firing exercises on Tuesday, remains defiant even with the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson breathing down its neck.

Many hope cooler heads will prevail.

The alternative of all out war is horrible to contemplate. But if it is to be avoided, the question is how to transition from a hard position to a more calibrated one that drops military options in favour of talks.

South Korea's upcoming election on May 9 may offer an exit strategy and reset. After all, it is Seoul that is most likely to be destroyed in the first reaction to any so-called "kinetic" military action.

"The Trump administration thinks at some level that what distinguishes them from everybody else before them is their willingness to really get tough, to say this is a red line and at that point they will have to act in extremis," Dr Swaine told The Straits Times at the open forum. "That would be a disaster," he warned.

President Trump is a risk-taker and dealmaker. He may be faced with the most challenging situation he has ever dealt with. In a game of brinkmanship with an unpredictable nuclear-armed state, there is no room for mistake.