BEIJING — President Trump’s threat to unleash “fire and fury” against North Korea sent a shudder through Asia on Wednesday, raising alarm among allies and adversaries and, to some observers, making the possibility of military conflict over the North’s nuclear program seem more real.
With North Korea responding that it would, if attacked, strike US military forces in Guam, analysts warned that the escalating statements increased the likelihood of war — perhaps one based on miscalculation, should one side’s fiery rhetoric be misread by the other.
Some played down Trump’s remark Tuesday as simply a warning not to attack the United States, albeit one whose tone was more typical of North Korean propagandists than it was of past US presidents. Officials in South Korea and Japan said that while the situation was tense, it had not reached a crisis point.
Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson played down any imminent threat from North Korea, saying on Wednesday, “I think Americans should sleep well at night, have no concerns about this particular rhetoric of the last few days.”
Still, some in the region said that the danger of war had not seemed as clear and present in decades. What was unthinkable just years ago no longer seems so, they said.
“We’re going to see a confrontation between the United States and North Korea that will be ferocious and strong and bloody,” said Cheng Xiaohe, an associate professor of international relations at Renmin University of China in Beijing. He called Trump’s language “explosive,” and said the threat and counterthreat had resulted in a new stage of confrontation.
Across the region Wednesday, analysts reacted with concern and even foreboding about the tone of Trump’s comments, as well as about the unimpeded progress that North Korea appears to be making toward becoming a full-fledged nuclear power, able to strike the United States or other far-off adversaries.
While Trump’s warning that North Korea, if it kept threatening the United States, would “be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen” clearly reflected growing American frustration over the North’s advances, analysts said it was not clear that he had fully considered the implications of such strong language.
That, they said, raised questions about the administration’s strategy, and about whether Trump recognized the price that some of the United States’ staunchest allies, especially Japan and South Korea, could pay for carrying out his threat.
“Trump doesn’t seem to understand what an alliance is, and doesn’t seem to consider his ally when he says those things,” said Lee Byong-chul, a senior fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul, the South Korean capital. “No American president has mentioned a military option so easily, so offhandedly, as he has. He unnerves people in South Korea, few of whom want war in Korea.”
Trump’s warning followed a report that US intelligence agencies believe that North Korea has made a nuclear weapon that can fit on the tip of a ballistic missile. Such drastic advances have already led Japan and South Korea to consider deploying new, more powerful weapons to counter the threat, after decades of relying on US military might for strategic security.
Officials in Asia and beyond have grown used to provocative musings by Trump, particularly on Twitter, and they tend to ignore them or to treat them as inaccurate reflections of US policy.
The South Korean government sought Wednesday to ease concern about the situation, saying that the North’s recent posturing appeared to be aimed at tightening solidarity among its own population and causing its neighbors anxiety.
“The situation has become more serious on the Korean Peninsula,” a senior official at the presidential Blue House told South Korean reporters, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “But we don’t think it has reached a crisis stage yet.”