Kim steps up war of words

The war of words hots up as North Korea goes face-to-face with America. Matthew Partridge reports.


Kim Jong-un: contemplating the nightmare scenario
(Image credit: Copyright (c) 2017 Rex Features. No use without permission.)

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 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".

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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, "at a moment when even Washington's neocon hawks are counselling caution, it's hard not to have a bad case of the collywobbles".

Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.

Follow Matthew on Twitter: @DrMatthewPartri