Seventy-two years to the day after a nuclear bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, North Asia is on edge.
An increasingly aggressive war of words between the nuclear-armed United States and North Korea has caused consternation among the region’s major powers.
While North Korea’s neighbors are used to the saber rattling — Pyongyang once threatened to turn the South Korean capital Seoul into a “sea of fire” — they are less familiar with similarly heated comments emanating from the US side.
In remarks made Tuesday, US President Donald Trump warned North Korea not to make any more threats or they will “face fire and fury like the world has never seen.” That ultimatum is likely to resonate in Asia, where memories of destructive US aerial bombing raids, including those on Japan’s Hiroshima and Nagasaki, continue to loom large.
“This region is very aware of the danger and destruction that a nuclear attack can cause, and that’s important to keep in mind from an Asian perspective,” said Jean Lee, a global fellow for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the former chief of the Seoul and Pyongyang bureaus for the Associated Press.
For the tens of millions of people on the ground in South Korea, who military experts say would face catastrophic destruction in a war, the language from Washington is concerning, due to the possibility that it puts both sides on edge — and when things are tense, the possibility for miscalculation becomes ever greater.
“I’m bit worried about what Americans are thinking about current situation,” resident Ok Soo-kyung told CNN on the streets of Seoul. Others shared similar sentiments about the seriousness of the situation.
“South Koreans are accustomed to the rhetoric, but they’re much more accustomed to rhetoric coming from North Korea,” said Lee.
China called for calm on Wednesday, urging all parties to “avoid remarks and actions that could aggravate conflicts and escalate tensions” in the region.
The threat of war has led to renewed debate in both Japan and South Korea as to the role of the nation’s military and whether enough is being done to counter the threat posed by a nuclear armed North Korea.
On Wednesday, South Korean President Moon Jae-in called for the country to reform and improve its defensive capabilities in order to counter ongoing threats from North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.
“I believe our given task is reform of the military. It should be an intensive one. I believe we need a defense reform at a level of a complete overhaul, instead of minor improvements or modifications,” said Moon during a promotion ceremony for new military commanders.
Moon’s comments, though part of broader efforts to reform the military, came shortly after North Korean state media reported it was “examining the operational plan” to strike areas around Guam with medium-to-long-range strategic ballistic missiles.
In Japan, where debates around possible revisions to the country’s pacifist constitution are ongoing, the official response to Trump’s comments has so far been muted.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga responded to a question about the “fire and fury” phrase by saying: “As the security situation in the region becomes increasingly difficult, the US’s deterrence capability is extremely important to Japan. The US has said all options are on the table and Japan welcomes this.”
What the North wants
From the time they are born, North Koreans are taught that the United States is preparing to invade the country. They learn the United States started the first Korean War, despite the fact that most historians say it began after North Korea invaded the South, and that they are preparing to strike again.
Kim Jong Un and North Korea’s leaders use the threat of US attacks to justify the country’s military-first mantra and the high costs associated with it. Citizens are told to tighten their belts to protect their national sovereignty and security.
So when Trump threatens North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” that feeds into Pyongyang’s propaganda, analysts say.
“This is precisely what the North Koreans want. As twisted as that may seem, I am sure that North Korea is happy about the response from Donald Trump because one of the things they want is attention from Washington,” Lee said.
Trumps comments follow a UN Security Council resolution passed Saturday in response to the July 4 and 28 tests of long-range missiles that could theoretically put the United States in range of a North Korean nuclear weapon.
The resolution, which targets the country’s international revenue streams, was passed unanimously after strong lobbying from the United States. The Trump administration has said it wants to squeeze North Korea’s coffers in order to pressure the country to the negotiating table.
The White House hailed the resolution as a big win, but analysts worry about their efficacy — success is in large part predicated on enforcement, and North Korea has proven adept in evading international sanctions.
Others remain skeptical that a country which some say prioritizes its military above the lives of average citizens would give up a tactical tool that Pyongyang believes is the key to preventing a US-led invasion.
“We will, under no circumstances, put the nukes and ballistic rockets on negotiating table. Neither shall we flinch even an inch from the road to bolstering up the nuclear forces chosen by ourselves, unless the hostile policy and nuclear threat of the US against the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) are fundamentally eliminated,” North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho said earlier this week.
Trump’s comments ‘not helpful’
Other regional powers weighed in on Trump’s comments and the escalating North Korean threat.
In a statement, China called for calm, and urged “all relevant sides to uphold the broad direction of resolving the North Korean nuclear issue through political means.”
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said a “conflict (with North Korea) would be shattering.”
“It would have catastrophic consequences,” he told reporters in Canberra, accusing Pyongyang of “threatening the peace of the region.”
In New Zealand, Prime Minister Bill English was more critical of Trump, describing the President’s comments as “not helpful in an environment that’s very tense.”
“When a situation is so tense and I think, you’re seeing reaction from North Korea, that indicates that kind of comment is more likely to escalate than to settle things,” English said.
“Everyone wants to avoid military confrontation and the path ahead there is for North Korea to comply with the UN sanctions and for international pressure to push them in that direction.”