As luck would have it, the day U.S. President Donald Trump took the stage at the United Nations to threaten North Korea, North Korean diplomats were given seats right in front of him. Front row, almost centre, based on a UN lottery that assigns spots.
This was the closest the two countries could have come to face-to-face talks since Trump became president last November.
But the General Assembly delegation in New York City walked out before Trump arrived, leaving only a junior diplomat to hear the climax, where the president promised to “destroy North Korea” if the “rocket man” — as Trump calls North Korean leader Kim Jong-un — doesn’t back down from his threats to hit the U.S mainland with a nuclear missile.
Kim’s weapons development program seems to be getting close to producing a rocket that could do that, as Pyongyang has demonstrated with more than a dozen missile tests this year and an underground nuclear explosion. U.S. intelligence estimates North Korea will have the capability to attack the United States within a year.
Trump’s promise of military action obviously touched a nerve in Pyongyang, triggering a similarly direct and dismissive response from an offended Kim.
“A frightened dog barks loudest,” the North Korean leader shot back, in a rare first-person reply.
He called Trump a “rogue,” a “gangster” and a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard.”
‘Kim Jong-un is very easy to predict. His path toward nuclear armament is coherent and systematic. It’s Trump we cannot predict, and that’s causing instability.’
– Kim Jong Dae, South Korean lawmaker
But beyond the insults, he vowed that “rather than frightening or stopping me,” the Trump speech convinced him that arming North Korea with nuclear missiles is the right path, “and is the one I have to follow to the last.”
He underlined that with a promise to set off “the highest level of hardline countermeasure in history.”
Kim didn’t say what that meant exactly, but his foreign minister later described a likely nuclear explosion over the Pacific
North’s foreign minister adds to war of words
The war of words only escalated over the weekend, as the two countries took to megaphone diplomacy.
It’s one of the few channels easily available to the U.S. and North Korea, as they have no ambassadors in each other’s capitals and no sign of back-channel negotiations to avoid military conflict.
In a speech Friday night in Alabama and again on Twitter, Trump took to calling Kim “little rocket man.”
North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho shouted back as he spoke to the UN on Saturday that each Trump threat and insult made “our rocket’s visit to the entire U.S. mainland inevitable all the more.”
And so it went, as any chance of real dialogue and negotiations to end the standoff over North Korea’s nuclear missile program fell victim to the escalating war of words.
On Friday, Trump himself said “maybe something gets worked out” with Kim now, but “personally, I’m not sure that it will.”
‘A demonstration of U.S. resolve’
Meanwhile, in a show of force, the United States military flew nuclear-capable B-1 Lancer bombers and F-15C fighter jets along the North Korean coast on Saturday, skirting the peninsula farther north than at any time since the 1990s, when Pyongyang started its weapons program.
“This mission is a demonstration of U.S. resolve and a clear message that the president has many military options to defeat any threat,” said a Pentagon statement.
Fears of another underground detonation by North Korea were also sparked Saturday, when an earthquake was detected near the country’s nuclear testing site. Chinese experts initially called it a possible explosion, but they and others now say it was probably caused by settling or structural collapses triggered by Pyongyang’s last big test three weeks ago.
South’s talk of bolstering defensive weapons
In Seoul, barely 60 kilometres from the North Korean border and directly in the sights of Kim’s artillery, the tension is rising.
It’s not so much because of Kim’s threat — South Koreans feel they’ve heard those before and they’re used to them. Rather, it’s because of what seems like goading from Trump.
Some see him as unpredictably trigger-happy.
“These are extreme comments that make the situation worse,” says Kim Jong Dae, who belongs to the centre-left Justice Party, and is a member of South Korea’s National Assembly and its national defence committee.
“Kim Jong-un is very easy to predict,” he says. “His path toward nuclear armament is coherent and systematic.
“It’s Trump we cannot predict, and that’s causing instability. He uses extreme words to talk about war, but he doesn’t have a coherent plan.”
Popular support is rising for bolstering South Korea’s defensive weapons, and possibly even reintroducing American tactical nuclear weapons, which were withdrawn in 1991.
That would have been unthinkable here just a few months ago.
But that was before the rhetoric exploded on both sides, raising many questions and fears about the intentions of Kim and Trump.