U.S. President Donald Trump’s harsh rhetoric against North Korea and equally strident counter-threats by Pyongyang have made the situation in the Korean Peninsula drastically worse. After reports emerged that North Korea has developed a miniaturised nuclear warhead that can fit inside its missiles, Mr. Trump said that the country would be met with “fire and fury” of the sort the world had never seen if it continued to threaten the U.S. If Mr. Trump’s tough talk, which he repeated again in the following days with even a reference to America’s nuclear weapons, was intended to deter Pyongyang from escalating the situation, it was an instant failure. The North issued a specific threat, saying it was considering a plan to fire missiles towards Guam, the American territory in the Pacific. It is appalling that there’s no substantial effort to defuse tensions even as two nuclear powers are steadily escalating threats against each other. Though the State Department has tried to play down Mr. Trump’s remarks and countries like Russia, China and Germany have counselled calm, it’s not clear whether there are any efforts from either side to reach out to the other diplomatically. More worryingly, the U.S. and South Korea are going ahead with massive sea, air and land exercises later this month.
This is a dangerous spiral. Even a limited strike by the U.S. to diminish North Korea’s missile capabilities, as advised by some strategists in Washington, could instantly turn into a full-scale war if Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s volatile leader, sees it as a threat to his regime. North Korea has installed thousands of pieces of artillery along the demilitarised zone which can rain down fire on South Korea in minutes. In the same way, if Mr. Kim continues to ignore the threats from Washington and goes ahead with an attack on Guam, it could prompt Mr. Trump, who is equally unpredictable when it comes to decision-making, to pick an option his predecessors avoided because of the risks involved. Mr. Trump’s predecessors have some responsibility for the crisis the world is facing today. They resorted to sanctions and war games in the region to weaken and intimidate North Korea even after the futility of such methods became clear. Sanctions work only in a country where the rulers are responsive to their people through some political process, not in a totalitarian regime whose primary goal is its own survival. If Mr. Trump continues to tread the same track, it could also push the world into a major conflict, putting the lives of millions on the line. It’s time for Mr. Trump to change course and take the road less travelled, but the only promising route currently available: direct negotiations with Pyongyang.