Kim steps up war of words

Kim Jong-un with his officers © Rex Features
Kim Jong-un: contemplating the nightmare scenario

North Korea threatened to attack the US Pacific territory of Guam just hours after President Trump warned it of “fire and fury like the world has never seen” if threats from Pyongyang continued.

The war of words came after US intelligence upped its estimate of the number of nuclear bombs North Korea possesses to 60 – and said it thought the pariah state had managed to produce a warhead small enough to fit inside a ballistic missile. This “nightmare scenario”, says Michael Evans in The Times, “was supposed to be two years away”. The news follows a unanimous vote by the UN security council to impose new sanctions against North Korea owing to its missile tests and bellicose rhetoric.

“While Washington’s next steps are not crystal clear, it looks increasingly likely that the two-decades-long US policy of ‘strategic patience’ towards Pyongyang may now be over with all options on the table,” says Andrew Hammond on Independent.co.uk. These “range from a new round of peace talks at the dovish end of the spectrum to more hawkish actions like interdicting ships suspected of selling North Korean weapons abroad, one of the regime’s key sources of income”.

However, the international community is particularly concerned that Trump’s rhetoric suggests that he “might now be thinking, much more seriously, about a pre-emptive strike on Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities”. But if Kim concludes that the US is indeed poised to attack his regime, he will be tempted to attack first, according to Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times. This is because “North Korea’s military doctrine, as expressed in recent exercises, envisages the first use of nuclear weapons to ward off defeat or destruction”. As well as Guam, North Korean nuclear missiles “could hit South Korea or Japan”.

Given North Korea’s military capacity, a US first strike would be “reckless”, says The Economist. But diplomacy on its own is “insufficient”. Remember that in 1994 President Bill Clinton secured a deal “whereby Kim Jong-il (the current despot’s father) agreed to stop producing the raw material for nuclear bombs in return for a huge injection of aid”. However, Kim took the help but “immediately started cheating”.

While Trump needs to make clear that “America is not about to start a war, nuclear or conventional”, he also needs to state that “a nuclear attack by North Korea on America or one of its allies will immediately be matched”. Whatever happens next, concludes Jacob Heilbrunn on Spectator.co.uk,  “at a moment when even Washington’s neocon hawks are counselling caution, it’s hard not to have a bad case of the collywobbles”.