America first: the US will put its own safety before protecting the region

No one wants war but the brinkmanship between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un is gathering its own momentum

People wave banners and shout slogans as they attend a rally in support of North Korea's stance against the US, on Kim Il-Sung square in Pyongyang on August 9, 2017. 
US President Donald Trump said the United States' nuclear arsenal was "more powerful than ever" in a fresh warning to North Korea over its repeated missile tests. / AFP PHOTO / KIM Won-Jin
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There is an inconvenient truth behind the North Korea crisis: No one wants a war with Pyongyang because its threats are ultimately viewed as bluster from a cornered regime.

Yet the brinkmanship between the main protagonists is close to taking on a life of its own.

Donald Trump has consistently used confrontational messages - and even choreographed body language - to set out a hard line with Pyongyang. His opposite number Kim Jong-un has raised the stakes week after week, with missile tests and a rush to defy sanctions by completing a missile-ready nuclear device.

Senator Lyndsey Graham, a Republican but no friend of the president, has provided the best insight into why Washington has run out patience with Kim.

“For 20 years this kind of thinking has allowed North Korea to develop dozens of nuclear weapons, not just one. They’ll have dozens one day if somebody doesn’t stop them. They’ll have a hydrogen weapon one day if somebody doesn’t stop them," he said. “It’s time for a new approach. We need to let China know that we will pick our homeland defence over regional stability. If we have to chose between an ICBM [inter-continental ballistic missile] in the hands of the North Koreans and a conflict in the region, we’re going to choose the conflict to protect the American homeland. Quite frankly President Trump has no other choice because everybody before him has failed.”

By reaching this conclusion, Senator Graham ripped up a playbook on how to handle North Korea that has been in place since the 1990s.

There is a long list of envoys that have shuttled to Pyongyang to talk the regime back from confrontation - former president Jimmy Carter, Bill Richardson, a Clinton-era cabinet member and Christopher Hill, who endured years of temporary pacts fleshed out in what was known as the six-party talks between the two Koreas, the US, China, Japan and Russia.

As Mr Graham said, the approach has manifestly failed. Phone screens across America alert more than once a week with new messages of a missile test. At 33 years old Mr Kim is a leader who appears to be testing himself as much as he is making demands on world leaders.

Mark Fitzpatrick, a security expert with the International institute for Strategic Studies, worked in US government during the six-party talks and has followed the issue closely as a threat to global peace. Mr Fitzpatrick points out that the confrontation remains several steps away from conflagration.

The US military does not appear to have changed its military posture around the Korean peninsula or further afield in Guam or any other likely Korean target. The danger comes only if Pyongyang really sees Mr Trump's "fire and fury" announcement as a clear and imminent notice of a US attack.

Even then Mr Fitzpatrick points out the very public signal sent by Pyongyang about its interest in hitting Guam could be interpreted as a bluff.

North Korea could unleash missiles, even nuclear weapons, on South Korea and Japan. Given the succession of tests it has carried out in recent months, its arsenal is far more likely to score a successful hit closer to its shore than on the far-off Pacific atoll.

Rex Tillerson, the US secretary of state, qualified Mr Trump’s comments yesterday, telling Americans to “sleep well at night”. In doing so, he alluded to how both sides were knowingly upping the pressure on the other side. Since North Korea does not understand diplomatic pressure, Mr Trump was sending a strong message in language Kim would understand, Mr Tillerson added.

It should not be forgotten that the clear test of Mr Trump’s approach remains not much different from the measure of success faced by President Barack Obama or any of his predecessors.

Can Washington persuade Beijing to put Pyongyang under pressure to make real concessions?

After numerous failed deals in the past it is hard to see how a deal with North Korea would succeed without Chinese guarantees that the arsenal, which could now be as many as 60 nuclear bombs, has been properly safeguarded.

Only that would ensure that Americans can sleep soundly without waking up to more news alerts about North Korean launching missiles.