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North Korea: Escalating rhetoric still leaves room for diplomacy

WASHINGTON - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un can no longer get away with threatening the United States, President Donald Trump told journalists on Thursday (Aug 10) in his most extensive remarks on the superpower's standoff with Pyongyang.

Mr Trump, flanked by National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Vice-President Mike Pence, said: "He (Kim Jong Un) has disrespected our country greatly...and with me he's not getting away with it.

"This is a whole new ballgame."

Despite the amped-up rhetoric, some analysts are cautiously optimistic that there remains room for a diplomatic way out of the crisis.

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Mr Trump's increasingly blunt words - supported by White House hawks like his aide Sebastian Gorka - and stated readiness to retaliate with overwhelming force against the threat of a North Korean attack, and the Pyongyang regime's continuing defiance, continue to divide opinion.

It has split hawks from those who believe that a military confrontation would destroy not only the North, but engulf the peninsula, killing by some estimates well over a million people including Americans, leaving much of both countries in ruins.

A war on the Korean peninsula would be "hell", Mr Harry J. Kazianis, director of defence studies at the conservative Centre for the National Interest, wrote in an opinion piece on the pro-Trump Fox News website. The think-tank was founded by the late president Richard Nixon to advocate "realism" in foreign policy.

"All sides, especially the brutal regime of Kim Jong Un, should think twice about proceeding down the path towards conflict. Because in a Second Korean War, no one wins," he wrote.

Mr Bruce Klingner, who was the CIA's former deputy division chief for South Korea during a 1994 standoff with North Korea when the two countries were on the brink of war, told the journal The Hill that the current situation was more serious.

"We have a more unpredictable US president, we know less about the North Korean leader than we did then and North Korea has a much greater nuclear missile delivery capability than it did in 1994," he said.

"So things are getting very dicey, even by Korea peninsula standards."

But The Washington Post on Thursday quoted Cheong Seong-chang, a North Korean leadership expert at the left-leaning Sejong Institute in the South, saying: "North Korea is not developing ICBM technology to start a war with the US. This is all about preventing the US from intervening in any military conflict on the Korean Peninsula."

Separately a senior American diplomat, speaking to The Straits Times on condition of anonymity, said: "Kim is not in the business of war. He is in the business of extortion."

Mr Kim's methods are ruthless, but his ideological goal is to force the US to withdraw its troops from South Korea, and unify the Korean peninsula under the north. In the short term, the North Korean dictator wants recognition as a nuclear power, and to talk on equal terms with the US.

Possessing nuclear weapons is his ace against the superpower he believes may destroy North Korea if he did not have them. Now, his regular threats to strike the US with a nuclear missile have met with an equally bellicose US president, and a heightened risk of miscalculation.

Dr David Kang, Professor of International Relations and Business, University of Southern California, wrote in Foreign Affairs on Wednesday: "Western commentators often treat North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un as a joke. (US) Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley has even publicly questioned whether he is crazy. Yet calling the North Korean leader names is a mistake."

Dr Kang continued: "Kim is no buffoon. To treat him like one is to misunderstand the threat posed by North Korea and its leader - an especially grave mistake today, as tensions between Pyongyang and Washington flare up on a regular basis."

Dr Balbina Hwang, visiting professor at Georgetown University, told The Straits Times that bellicose rhetoric from North Korea was not unusual. This time, however, Mr Trump was reacting in kind.

But on closer examination, North Korea's position still leaves wiggle room for Pyongyang to climb down or change its plans, analysts say.

The Korean Peoples Army (KPA) has not said it is going to strike the island of Guam - home to tens of thousands of civilians including over 60,000 Philippines nationals, and several thousand American military personnel at Andersen Air Base and Naval Base Guam.

It has said it is drawing up plans to strike near Guam.

And even Defence Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have left the door to talks open in careful statements.

On Thursday, Mr Mattis, a former general, told reporters: "What we're doing is a diplomatically-led effort that is succeeding in drawing the international community together and speaking with one voice. That's where we're at. Do I have military options? Of course I do. That's my responsibility, to have those."

He said: "We want to use diplomacy. But at the same time, our defences are...robust."

Professor Hwang said: "Both sides are still talking in terms of deterrence." North Korea was likely gearing to make a move on or around August 15, National Liberation Day, an event with great resonance in both North and South Korea. But the Pyongyang regime would swerve at the last minute before provoking the US further, she predicted.

"In US-DPRK standoffs, the one who can take it furthest is the country which can bear the most risk, and North Korea's ability to bear risk is much higher than what one would consider normal or logical," she said.

"But it is not suicidal, it has backed down every time the US has shown an overt threat of force."