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How a Korean war could start

Impulsive US president, macho North Korean leader and sensational coverage providing ingredients

| North Korea
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A U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon arrives at Kunsan Air Base, South Korea on August 3.   © Reuters

On Aug. 8, the Washington Post reported that the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency had concluded for the first time that North Korea was now able to place a miniaturized nuclear warhead on top of its new intercontinental ballistic missiles. The article sent U.S. cable news channels into a frenzy, with ensuing reports about how Hawaii and points east could soon be subject to atomic Armageddon. The wall-to-wall coverage prompted U.S. President Donald Trump, whose actions often seemed guided by what appears on cable news, to threaten North Korea with "fire and fury and, frankly, power, the likes of which the world has never seen before."

The episode illustrates how media hype and an impulsive TV-driven president confronting a young, macho leader in Pyongyang can create a dangerous mixture that limits the possibilities of finding a diplomatic solution to dealing with North Korea's nuclear weapon and missile program. It also reveals disagreements within the West's intelligence and scientific communities about how far along North Korea has come in becoming a second-tier nuclear state like Israel, India and Pakistan.

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