SEOUL, South Korea, April 19, (Agencies): Unpredictable. Unhinged. Dangerous. Many South Koreans are using those words to describe the president of their most important ally, rather than the leader of their archrival to the North. They worry that President Donald Trump’s tough, unorthodox talk about North Korea’s nuclear program is boosting already-high animosity between the rival Koreas.
No matter whether Trump succeeds at getting North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons and missile programs, his actions, comments and tweets are changing how the region views the long-running conflict. Senior North Korean officials see their relations with Washington as even more volatile than before. China is appealing for calm, and possibly reexamining its role. Japan is weighing a retaliatory strike capability against the North.
CHINA After decades of failure to stop North Korea’s march toward a nuclear arsenal, some see Trump’s bluster as a shrewd attempt to press China, the North’s most important ally and trading partner, into pressuring North Korea more aggressively over its nuclear program. Trump has said he’s willing to make trade and economic concessions to China in return for its help with North Korea. “A trade deal with the US will be far better for them if they solve the North Korean problem!” Trump said on Twitter, recounting what he told Xi while hosting him this month at his Palm Beach, Florida, resort. Pulling back from a campaign promise, Trump has also said he would not declare China a currency manipulator, as he looked for help from Beijing.
The rhetoric seems to be blurring the lines between North Korea and economic ties with China, issues that previous US administrations had kept separate. If such persuasion falls short, Trump has suggested he might use more coercive methods. So-called secondary sanctions on Chinese banks that do business with North Korea could also be in the offing, officials have said.
SOUTH KOREA South Koreans may be uneasy about North Korea’s expanding arsenal of weapons, but many doubt that the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, wants to start a war that would likely end in the destruction of his government and the ruling elite. Donald Trump is another story, judging by widespread concern posted on Twitter. Some see him as a hot-tempered, unpredictable leader who might attack North Korea before it masters the technology to build a nucleartipped missile that could hit the US mainland. North Korea is moving steadily toward that goal, and some experts believe it could achieve it during Trump’s presidency.
NORTH KOREA Trump is clearly on the mind of the North Korean leadership. A senior Foreign Ministry official told The Associated Press last week that Pyongyang has been watching Trump’s actions — including his recent order for the strike on a Syrian air base and his many tweets about North Korea — and determined that his administration is “more vicious and more aggressive” than that of his predecessor, Barack Obama. In response, Pyongyang is promising it will continue to build up its “nuclear deterrent” and respond in kind to any hostile moves, perceived or real. North Korean fury at Washington was rising well before Trump took office, in particular over reports that annual US-South Korean military exercises now include training for precision strikes on the North’s leadership or nuclear and military facilities. Pyongyang’s regime has called that “a red line,” and has since begun its own training for pre-emptive strikes and speeded up its testing of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. JAPAN Japan is drawing up emergency responses in case of a North Korea missile strike. A number of municipalities are testing community alarm systems and planning evacuation drills as concerns run high around US military bases. Both Japan and South Korea are home to tens of thousands of US troops.