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Action needed to halt Trump’s trigger finger

Action needed to halt Trump’s trigger finger

THURSDAY, June 22, 2017
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Southeast Asia could play a pivotal role in getting the United States and North Korea to cool down and talk

Anytime United States President Donald Trump latches onto an international issue, the outcome is anything but predictable. His off-the-cuff comments and tweets have created more problems than diplomats can hope to solve. Knowing this, national leaders around the globe will have to exercise extreme caution when the US makes its intentions clear over the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula. Trump, ill advised, ill informed and reckless, could easily trigger a major war. 
The most recent development in the looming showdown with Pyongyang was salt rubbed into an unhealed wound, and could scrub any peaceful efforts underway. The death of American university student Otto Warmbier just over a week after his release from North Korean custody is now feeding the war hawks among his compatriots. In a coma when he was handed back to the US last week, the 22-year-old quickly succumbed to the damage caused by the North’s apparent 
wilful neglect of his health after he was imprisoned for “stealing” a wall poster. 
His death could give Trump the justification he seeks to punish the North for its rocketry experiments by delivering a barrage of sea-launched missiles. A tough response from the White House would conveniently also deflect attention at home away from the legal quagmire in which Trump is sinking. 
But let’s be quite clear about this: Any strike against the North, whether limited in scope or a brutal assault, especially if the targets are its nuclear test sites, would draw immediate retaliation. And Pyongyang’s target in response would be Seoul, the capital of the South that sits perilously close to the border dividing the peninsula. In terms of its own proximity and risk, Washington might as well be on another planet. But Seoul is a stone’s throw away from one of the world’s most powerful and aggressive armies – and an arsenal of increasingly efficient ballistic missiles.
To avoid a catastrophe, the US must set aside anguish over its student’s death and, with China’s help, continue pressuring the North to rein in its military ambitions. It is not wise, though, to put too great a burden on China, since it is the responsibility of the international community as a whole to ensure that UN Security Council resolutions regarding Pyongyang are fully implemented. Nations with economic ties to North Korea have been turning a blind eye to the crisis. Their wholehearted support is essential if international sanctions are to have any chance at curbing the North’s belligerence.
Kim Jung-un, the North’s supreme leader, is a different breed of despot, thriving on uncertainty, quick to show aggression. Like his grandfather and father before him, he seeks to hold the entire Korean Peninsula hostage in pursuit of his goals. Trump, a despot of an unrelated species, fixed on North Korea by way of needing a publicity stunt to impress his countrymen. He believed he could get Beijing to sit on Pyongyang. It refused, so some fresh magic is needed.
We say again that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has an important role to play in this affair. With some of its members enjoying close working relations with Pyongyang, it could provide the fulcrum Trump asked for that would get the North negotiating directly with the US. This might even be our region’s chance to demonstrate the flaw in Trump’s “America First” policy.