The Straits Times says

Cooling North Korea's fire and furies

Stepping up to the podium after chairing a meeting on the opioid epidemic, US President Donald Trump unleashed on North Korea one of those verbal fusillades that have become his trademark. Aiming his remarks at Mr Kim Jong Un, clearly the most dangerous of Pyongyang's Kim dynasty, Mr Trump raged that he had better end his frequent threats to attack the US or "they will be met with fire, fury and, frankly, power like the world has never seen before". Coming from the leader of a nation that has been the only one in history to use nuclear weapons, the words were particularly chilling. Predictably, Mr Trump came in for criticism for being excessively bellicose, even from senior figures within his own Republican Party.

It was as usual left to his key lieutenants to tamp down the situation. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, stopping in Guam shortly after Pyongyang threatened to attack it, advised Americans to "sleep well at night", adding that there was "no imminent threat". Secretary of Defence James Mattis showed up for a Pentagon press briefing carrying his dry-cleaning, clearly aimed to signal normality. Bellicose or not, the threat, which prompted a call from Chinese President Xi Jinping to Mr Trump, probably served its purpose.

The North, for now, has backed away from its threat to target Guam. The respite is a welcome one, although going by Mr Kim's track record, it will be only a matter of time before he tests his next missile or a bomb. Displaying remarkable resilience against the ever-increasing sanctions laid on by the United Nations, sanctions that surely must be crippling large parts of his state, Mr Kim has pursued his agenda. This year alone, there have been 18 missiles fired during 12 tests. Each time, the North's capability inches forward a little. The missiles, which have been of short and medium ranges, and both liquid- and solid-fuelled, are petrifying South Korea and Japan, where people must wonder if it was time that they, too, adopted equally frightening retaliatory capability.

Pyongyang's skittishness escalates with every joint drill the United States conducts with the North's estranged sibling to the South. The tests and drills - meant to protect the South but seen by the North as war games for attacks on its territory - are mutually reinforcing twists in a downward spiral. It is time that the US dropped its reluctance to engage Pyongyang and, keeping its Southern ally onside, offer the direct negotiations that Pyongyang so desperately seeks with Washington. Perhaps Beijing, too, can offer its good offices to hold such a meeting, even as it pressures its only treaty ally to put a lid on the escalation. What is clear is that rigid positions of old have not worked. It is essential that new formulations are attempted before it is too late. Asia at large has a vital stake in the outcome.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 19, 2017, with the headline 'Cooling North Korea's fire and furies'. Print Edition | Subscribe