There is no mistaking the fact that the North Korean standoff with the US poses a danger to peace in the world of a serious magnitude. For once China was on the mark when it warned on Friday that tensions on the Korean Peninsula could spin out of control, as North Korea said it could test a nuclear weapon at any time and a US naval group neared the peninsula.
With US President Donald Trump fresh from bombings on Syrian targets and on Afghan tunnels and caves where Islamic State fighters had taken fresh positions to unleash terror, the US is on a path of brinkmanship that could spell danger. Said Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi in Beijing: “If they (the Americans) let war break out on the peninsula, they must shoulder that historic culpability and pay the corresponding price for it.”
This was evidently a clever way of shifting responsibility when the Americans have been putting the onus on Beijing for not bringing the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-on to heel. In typical verbal escalation, the North Korean military issued a statement recently threatening to attack major American military bases in South Korea, as well as the presidential Blue House, warning that it could annihilate those targets ‘within minutes’.
Yet, amid all this there was a silver lining when the underground nuclear test that the Koreans had been tomtomming about was seemingly put off to mollify the US. The Americans say they are more concerned about a test of an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the United States — a feat the North has never come close to accomplishing — than another nuclear test.
What worries the Americans most is the combination of a missile and a warhead. North Korea’s vice foreign minister, Han Song-ryol, said on Friday that the United States was ‘becoming more vicious and aggressive’ under Trump and that ‘we will go to war if they choose’.
There was a lot of sabre-rattling that former president Barack Obama indulged in but he did not evoke the kind of apprehension that Trump does. The North Koreans may show much bravado but they are wary and unsure of to what lengths Trump can go. They recognise that he can be quite unpredictable and rash. The faceoff that seemed a near-certainty until now could well be averted for now, but there could be trouble in store in some time.