News analysis

US, North Korea 'at risk of a war nobody wants'

With US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un unwilling or unable to back down from a vitriolic personal stand-off, their countries are at grave risk of a war that nobody wants, analysts say.

The US has "not declared war" on North Korea, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said on Monday, dismissing as "absurd" North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho's statement to that effect in New York that morning.

"Our goal is still the same: Peaceful denuclearisation of North Korea through maximum diplomatic and economic measures," she said.

Mr Ri, however, told reporters that since the US has declared war, his country has every right to take countermeasures, including shooting down American warplanes outside North Korean airspace.

The statement confirmed the forebodings of many analysts in the United States.

"The way to bring Kim to his knees is bankrupting him instead of threatening him or belittling him," Dr Lee Sung Yoon, professor of Korean studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, told The Straits Times.

In a speech at the United Nations General Assembly last week, US President Donald Trump said that if threatened, the United States may have to ''totally destroy'' North Korea. He also called North Korean leader Kim Jong Un a ''rocket man on a suicide mission''.  PHOTO: NYTIMES

"North Korea says absurd things all the time. As long as Trump can keep up the financial pressure for the next year or two, there is a chance he will come out on top, but descending to North Korea's level of name-calling doesn't do the US any good," Dr Lee said.

Saying that Mr Trump "is not playing a very sophisticated game", he added: "Not only does that not deter North Korea, but it also makes the US President come across as foolish and unnecessarily hostile, and most importantly, it casts North Korea in a more sympathetic light."

North Korea's Hwasong-12 missile being launched. North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho has said his country has every right to take countermeasures
since the US has declared war, which the US dismissed as ''absurd''. PHOTO: REUTERS

North and South Korea, while technically still at war, have observed a truce since 1953. Since then, there have been a few deadly incidents. In 2010, a North Korean torpedo sank a South Korean naval vessel, killing 46 sailors. In the same year, the North fired artillery shells at Yeonpyeong Island, killing four people, in retaliation for a South Korean military exercise.

In response to Mr Donald Trump's UN speech, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said the US leader had denied his existence and insulted him and his country,
and that ''whatever Trump might have expected, he will face results beyond his expectation''. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The 1950-53 Korean War killed millions.

"There cannot be another war in the region; there cannot be another outbreak of war on the Korean peninsula," South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung Wha told an audience at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on Tuesday.

"The consequences would be devastating not just for the Korean peninsula, but also for North-east Asia and indeed for the whole international community."

It is imperative for South Korea and the US to prevent further escalation or any clash that could spiral out of control, Dr Kang added.

The United Nations Security Council and the US have tightened previously weak economic sanctions on North Korea. US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley has also said diplomacy is the preferred path.

But Mr Trump "has taken foreign policy out of the hands of his foreign policy team", said Mr Will Saetren, a research associate at the Institute for China-America Studies.

In a speech at the UN General Assembly last week, the US President, playing to the international community as well as his own nationalist support base, said that if threatened, the US may have to "totally destroy" North Korea. He also called Mr Kim a "rocket man on a suicide mission".

Mr Kim, in a broadcast to the nation, said Mr Trump had denied his existence and insulted him and his country.

"Whatever Trump might have expected, he will face results beyond his expectation," Mr Kim said. "I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged US dotard with fire."

At a rally in Alabama last Friday, Mr Trump again mentioned Mr Kim, calling him the "little rocket man". "There are a lot of things that are bad and counterproductive about this," Dr Sue Mi Terry, a top North Korea expert formerly with the Central Intelligence Agency, told The Straits Times.

"You can be firm and take strong steps on North Korea without resorting to this kind of rhetoric, making it personal, calling him names. He did not make any distinction between the regime and the people," added Dr Terry, who is now a senior adviser at the Bower Group Asia consultancy.

"We have not seen ever in North Korean history a leader coming out with such a personal statement," she said. "Kim Jong Un is taking this very personally, and he cannot back down. I don't know if Trump understands that."

The two countries risk a "stumble into a war that nobody wants", she warned.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 27, 2017, with the headline 'US, N. Korea 'at risk of a war nobody wants''. Print Edition | Subscribe