AFP — By borrowing from North Korea’s own rhetorical playbook in his latest verbal assault on Pyongyang, US President Donald Trump risks provoking the unpredictable, nuclear-armed regime into carrying out “the very attack we seek to deter,” critics say.
At his New Jersey golf club, Trump warned that the North — which last month carried out two successful tests of an intercontinental ballistic missile — would be “met with fire and fury like the world has never seen” if it makes more threats against the US.
The language was similar to the bombastic, colorful diatribes North Korea unleashes against enemies such as South Korea, which it habitually threatens to turn into a “sea of flames” with its missiles.
But Trump’s comments were made as Asia was waking up to the 72nd anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, and analysts said they would be closely examined in Pyongyang.
The US needed to avoid “escalating rhetoric that risks provoking the very attack we seek to deter,” said Laura Rosenberger, former National Security Council director for Korea and China.
The “biggest concern is if they fear US action is imminent and they act in what they believe to be preemptive way,” she said on Twitter.
“Trump’s statement today is the kind of threat that could accelerate and/or tip that decision.”
Republican Senator John McCain also warned that Trump should tread carefully when speaking about the North, telling a US radio station: “All it’s going to do is bring us closer to some kind of serious confrontation.”
Pyongyang’s first ICBM brought Alaska within its range, experts say, and its second extended that to much of the US mainland, including Chicago and potentially New York.
The United Nations has imposed a new set of sanctions on the North which could shave off a third of the impoverished country’s total export earnings, and Washington, Seoul and Tokyo have staged joint military drills in a show of force.
“Brinkmanship is highly psychological and the potential for miscalculation is high,” said Jane’s analyst Karl Dewey, “particularly as so little is known about North Korea’s true preferences and threat perceptions.”
Pyongyang — which says it needs nuclear weapons to deter against the threat of invasion — responded to overflights of the Korean peninsula by Guam-based bombers with a declaration it was considering missile strikes on the US Pacific island.
But Pyongyang regularly issues blood-curdling threats, and analysts pointed out that announcing an attack in advance was not normal military strategy.
‘Shrimp among whales’
Any US strike on the North risks immediate retaliation — the Pyongyang regime bases its claim to legitimacy on its opposition to the US — and rapid escalation, with devastating consequences for the South.
Its capital Seoul, with a population of 10 million people and many more in the surrounding area, is within range of Pyongyang’s vast conventional artillery forces.
“By descending to Pyongyang-style rhetoric without good options for following through, Trump risks US credibility with allies and foes,” tweeted Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at Australian National University.
Southerners have become used to decades of hostile rhetoric from their northern neighbor, but the escalating war of words between the Trump administration — whose messages are frequently variable — and the North has unnerved many.
“Do you think we would be unharmed if the US will turn North Korea into a sea of fire? We are all going to die,” said one of the most-liked comments on Naver — the South’s top internet portal.
The capitalist South — Asia’s fourth-largest economy and a key Asian ally of the US — hosts 28,500 US troops to defend it from the North after the 1950-53 Korean War that ended with an armistice instead of a peace treaty.
The North’s ICBM tests have already raised fears in the South on whether the US would protect Seoul when that could put American cities in danger of potential missile retaliation by Pyongyang.
Online posters used the proverbial expression “a shrimp among whales” to describe the country buffeted by the currents of diplomacy and squeezed in a conflict between powerful neighbors.
Referring to Trump and the North’s young leader Kim Jong-Un, one poster said: “If these two nutheads really start a fight, South Korea will be the biggest victim.”