US allies in North Korea's firing line shrug off Trump's threats

Two U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancers (not pictured) joined up with Republic of Korea air force F-15s during a 10-hour mission from Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, into Japanese airspace and over the Korean Peninsula, July 30, 2017.


By ISABEL REYNOLDS AND YUKI HAGIWARA | Bloomberg | Published: August 9, 2017

The two countries most at risk from a U.S. attack on North Korea largely brushed off President Donald Trump's threat to unleash "fire and fury" as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson downplayed the threat of an immediate strike.

South Korea said on Wednesday it was watching for any new provocations by North Korea, and would continue to push for peace. Yonhap News Agency cited an unidentified official at the presidential office in Seoul saying there's no "imminent crisis."

In Japan, government spokesman Yoshihide Suga spent more time answering questions on Wednesday about a dispute with the U.S. over the safety of its Osprey military aircraft than about North Korea. A senior Japanese official, who asked not to be identified to discuss internal deliberations, said there's no mobilization for a military strike and very few people in the government are taking Trump's comments seriously.

Trump's comments reverberated around the world, sparking a selloff in global markets and prompting a wave of criticism in Washington. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he wasn't sure Trump was ready to act, while Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs committee, said the comments "undermined American credibility by drawing an absurd red line."

The subdued reaction in part reflects their long history of dealing with threats from North Korea: Both U.S. allies have long been in the firing line of Kim Jong Un and regularly hear the regime's threats of death and destruction. South Korea and Japan each host U.S. troops and depend on the American "nuclear umbrella" to deter an attack.

Still, Trump's comments on Wednesday -- made seemingly off-the-cuff in response to a question -- highlight a growing concern over the reliability of the U.S. as a strategic partner. Trump has said South Korea and Japan should pay more to host U.S. troops and sought to renegotiate trade terms.

Last month, Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, sparked concern when he said it was "unimaginable" to allow North Korea to have the capability to strike a U.S. city with a nuclear weapon. Sen. Lindsey Graham told NBC News last week Trump told him that "if thousands die, they're going to die over there."

"The prioritization of the American homeland and the security of the American homeland is upsetting a lot of understood truths: The idea that the U.S. would defend Seoul as if it were Los Angeles," said John Park, director of the Korea Working Group at Harvard Kennedy School. "Now the view is, in order to protect the American homeland, collateral damage over there is acceptable."

The prospect of conflict in the region rattled investors on Wednesday. South Korea's benchmark Kospi fell 1.1 percent to the lowest since June 21, while the won fell the most in three weeks. Japan's Topix index had the biggest slide in almost three months.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Wednesday said that Trump delivered Kim a "strong message" though said there was no "imminent threat," according to the Associated Press.

In a statement, China urged all sides to avoid escalating tensions and to return to dialogue. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov declined to answer a question about Trump's remark during a press briefing in Indonesia, where he is visiting.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has shifted away from initial attempts to start a dialogue with Kim, particularly after North Korea tested two intercontinental ballistic missiles within a matter of weeks. He has called for talks with the U.S. to consider the deployment of more Thaad missile-defense launchers to South Korea, a move he had previously put on ice.

Repeated provocations by North Korea have fueled calls for South Korea to arm itself with nuclear weapons. Critics argue it would trigger an arms race, including prompting Japan to seek a nuclear deterrent, elevating tensions further in a region still reeling from atrocities committed during World War II.

Lee Jong-myeong, a lawmaker with the main opposition Liberty Korea Party and a former army officer, said the number of voices calling for South Korea to obtain nuclear weapons has grown in recent years. Still, it remains too unpopular for the party to make an official proposal.

"North Korea may be threatening the U.S. with its long-range missiles, but it's essentially blackmailing us by putting pressure on the U.S.," Lee said by phone. "We have to be ready."

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has used the nuclear threat to push for changes to his country's pacifist constitution. His new defense minister, Itsunori Onodera, is an advocate of Japan obtaining its own long-range strike capability, something the country has so far avoided.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Wednesday blamed North Korea for raising tensions when asked about Trump's remark. He called on the regime to back down while acknowledging the high costs of war.

"A conflict would be shattering," Turnbull said. "It would have catastrophic consequences."