As President Donald Trump makes his journey to Asia for a 12-day, five-country trip, international security experts are urging him to “stick to the script” and avoid making incendiary comments while discussing North Korea.
The “America first” leader has engaged in an escalating war of words with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in recent months. In September, Trump threatened to “totally destroy” the rogue nation, which is home to an estimated 25 million people, if provoked.
Pyongyang has made significant advancements to its internationally condemned nuclear program this year and has repeatedly claimed that it is capable of striking the U.S. mainland with a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile. Kim’s regime is expected to be a key topic of discussion during Trump’s meetings in China, South Korea and Japan.
As tensions rise, experts fear Trump’s response to the situation is only fanning the flames, not dousing the fire.
“Trumpian rhetoric to ‘totally destroy’ North Korea is not helpful at a time when, alarmingly, the likelihood of all-out war on the Korean Peninsula has moved from remotely possible to almost palpable,” William Choong and Alexander Neill, senior fellows at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, wrote in a report published Friday.
“It is critically important for Asia-Pacific security that Trump does not fly off the handle,” they warned.
On Thursday, national security adviser H.R. McMaster told reporters Trump is unlikely to moderate his remarks overseas.
“The president will use whatever language he wants to use, obviously,” McMaster said. “I don’t think the president really modulates his language. I mean, have you noticed him do that? He has been very clear about that.”
This is hardly surprising to Catherine Dill, a defense analyst at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, but it is “absolutely concerning.”
“In my view, with North Korea ― and to some degree, also with [U.S.] allies in the region ― there is a real risk of miscalculation and unintended escalation. A lot of that could occur because of sloppy rhetoric,” she said.
If Trump makes bellicose comments about Pyongyang during his travels through Asia, Dill worries possible reactions from the North Korean regime could range from moderate, such as a short-range missile test, to severe, like a longer-range missile launch that overflies Japan.
She’s not optimistic that Trump’s visit to Asia will serve to improve relations with the North Korean regime. “I don’t really have any hopes,” she said with a laugh. “I think the best possible outcome is that it doesn’t lead to war.”
On the other hand, Dill sees the trip as an opportunity for Trump to “reassure Japan and South Korea, and also try to have a measured, constructive conversation with China.”
Due to their proximity to North Korea, American allies Tokyo and Seoul are especially vulnerable to a potential retaliatory attack by Pyongyang if it felt threatened or provoked. Trump has aggressively pressured Beijing to leverage its influence over the hermit kingdom to curb its nuclear ambitions.
Jeffrey Lewis, director of Middlebury’s East Asia Nonproliferation Program, also frets that more hostile statements or tweets from Trump about North Korea could exacerbate an already-tense standoff between Washington and Pyongyang.
The president’s taunts and derogatory nicknames for Kim, such as “Little Rocket Man” and other insults, “create an incentive for the North Koreans to stage provocations to show him up,” said Lewis. If the situation deteriorates into an acute crisis, such aggravating remarks from Trump could give the impression that a military strike is imminent, he added. “If that happens, my belief is the North Koreans would use their nuclear weapons first, in order to try to repel an invasion.”
Lewis does not anticipate a nuclear test or missile launch by North Korea during Trump’s Asia trip but notes that “it’s possible they’ll try to upstage [Trump]” with such a provocation as a form of political messaging.
“[North Korea] could totally do that. That is the kind of thing that they would do,” but they tend to scale back their missile tests during the colder months, he explained.
The regime has timed several tests to coincide with politically significant events, including Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to America and the eve of Independence Day in the U.S.
As to whether Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric would be more damaging if issued while he’s in Asia rather than back in Washington, Lewis said, “It’s all bad.” He likened the scenarios to choosing “between plague and cholera.”
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