South Korean presidential adviser calls Trump's threats 'very worrisome'

Professor Moon Chung In Moon speaks on a "Crisis on the Peninsula: Implications for the US - Korea Alliance" panel at the Asia Society in New York, on June 19, 2017.
Professor Moon Chung In Moon speaks on a "Crisis on the Peninsula: Implications for the US - Korea Alliance" panel at the Asia Society in New York, on June 19, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (BLOOMBERG) - A South Korean presidential adviser criticised Donald Trump's escalating North Korea threats, exposing a potential rift with a key ally in the firing line if war breaks out.

Moon Chung In, a special adviser to South Korean President Moon Jae In, told ABC News that Trump's vow to unleash "fire and fury" if the isolated nation continued its provocations was "very worrisome".

 That comment from Trump came less than 24 hours after a telephone conversation in which Moon Jae In urged him to tone things down, Moon Chung In said.

"This is very unusual. We do not expect that the president of the United States would make that kind of statement," Moon Chung In said, according to ABC News. "It is very worrisome for the president of the United States to fill (fuel) the crisis."

The comments represent the most pointed criticism from a US ally in Asia since Trump launched his new push to pressure Kim Jong Un and his benefactors in Beijing. They underscore Trump's risk of sowing division with nations that depend on the US for protection against North Korea and would be vital to the success of a military campaign.

Since taking office, Moon Jae In's administration has sought to open a dialogue with North Korea, even while strengthening its defenses in response to Kim's recent tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The criticism from a presidential adviser comes as the US's top general Joseph Dunford prepares to meet with Moon Jae In in Seoul on a previously scheduled visit. The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff will also meet with senior military officials.

The US has almost 30,000 military personnel stationed in South Korea and has assured the country's security since the Korean War ended without a peace treaty almost six decades ago.

Dunford will next head to China, Yonhap News Agency reported, citing an unidentified military official. In a weekend call with Trump, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for all sides to maintain restraint and avoid inflammatory comments.

Moon Chung In, South Korea's ambassador-at-large for international security, criticised the Trump administration for what he said was a lack of clarity over North Korea.

"It is a chicken game, but I think what is needed right now is mutual restraint," Moon Chung In told ABC News.

The adviser visited the US in June and attended leaders summits in North Korea in 2000 and 2007. An honorary professor at Yonsei University in Seoul, Moon Chung In has previously backed concessions to Pyongyang such as scaling back US-South Korean military exercises if North Korea suspends nuclear and missile activities, according to local media.

South Korea's presidential office said his remark on military drills did not represent an official government position, and officials said they also warned the professor that such comments are not conducive to good relations with the US, Yonhap reported in June.

Analysts have warned of the potential for further escalation in the coming days as both North and South Korea on Tuesday celebrate the anniversary of the end of Japanese occupation in 1945. Meanwhile, South Korea is planning to participate in massive joint military exercises with the US starting Aug 21.

Trump said last week that Kim had gotten away with provocations for too long and suggested that he was ready to hit the reclusive regime with US military might. He capped a week of escalating rhetoric with another warning on Friday, that if Kim made any "overt threat" or strike at a US territory or ally that "he will truly regret it, and he will regret it fast".

While the Australian and Japanese governments have backed Trump's hardline against North Korea, the comments have raised concerns that the US might be willing to accept collateral damage among its Asian allies to protect the American homeland.

Dunford said last month that it was "unimaginable" to allow North Korea to develop the capability to strike a US city with a nuclear weapon. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican, told NBC News that Trump told him that "if thousands die, they're going to die over there".