August 11, 2017 7:02 am JST

US, North Korea playing precarious game of chicken

No resolution in sight as rhetoric continues to escalate

TOMOYUKI KAWAI and HIROSHI MINEGISHI, Nikkei staff writers

The launch of a North Korean Hwasong intermediate-range missile. © Kyodo

WASHINGTON/SEOUL -- The war of words between the U.S. and North Korea is heating up as both sides attempt to scare the other into backing down, with Pyongyang even saying it is drawing up plans to fire four missiles toward the U.S. territory of Guam.

North Korea "should cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people," U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis said Wednesday, warning that Pyongyang would lose in a war with Washington.

As a former military man who understands the reality of national defense, Mattis had shown restraint in his past statements on the North. But he stiffened his tone Wednesday, even hinting at the potential fall of the North Korean regime.

U.S. President Donald Trump said Tuesday that North Korea "will be met with fire, fury and frankly, power, the likes of which this world has never seen before." He later retweeted an article by Fox News on U.S. military jets flying from Guam on training "ensuring they can 'fight tonight,'" then claimed "there will never be a time that we are not the most powerful nation in the world," while stressing he hoped the U.S. would never have to use its nuclear arsenal.

The North countered by announcing detailed plans to fire four intermediate-range missiles into waters just 30km to 40km off Guam. The Hwasong-12 rockets would fly over three Japanese prefectures and travel 3,356.7km in 1,065 seconds, said Gen. Kim Rak Gyom, commander of the strategic force of the North Korean military, according to the North's state-run Korean Central News Agency.

South Korean experts believe Pyongyang is mainly trying to demonstrate that it will not yield to American threats, and will seek some kind of compromise after pushing tensions to the limit. With one small misstep in its plan, North Korea could end up accidentally attacking Guam. It would not go through with it unless it is willing to risk military retribution from the U.S.

Some in Washington, however, are attempting to dial things back. "I do not believe that there is any imminent threat," U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters on Wednesday.

"Americans should sleep well at night, have no concerns about this particular rhetoric of the last few days," he said. Tillerson is simultaneously pressuring and seeking a dialogue with Pyongyang, which while announcing its Guam plan said it would continue to closely monitor U.S. talk and action.

But the efforts at dialogue have yielded little so far, and experts worry that both sides face rising stakes. Professor Kim Dong-yup of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul believes that Pyongyang likely will go through with plans to fire missiles toward Guam. The military mentioned a plan to publicly broadcast the launch. Since any announcement made through the state-run media there is considered a promise to the people, it would damage North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's public image if he does not order the missile launch, the professor said.

The U.S. administration has yet to fill key defense and state department posts for the Asia-Pacific. "It is difficult to strike a balance between pressure and dialogue," said Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior research fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation in Tokyo. "When it comes to policy decisions, Mr. Trump himself is the biggest unknown."

The North Korean military says it will iron out the rest of its plans on Guam by the middle of this month and wait for a decision by Kim. Meanwhile, the U.S. and South Korea are scheduled to conduct joint military exercises starting on Aug. 21.

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