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At U.N. and in the Air, North Korea and U.S. Trade Tough Messages

Referring to Mr. Trump’s threat — in his General Assembly address on Tuesday — to “totally destroy” North Korea, Mr. Ri said the American president had “committed an irreversible mistake.”

“None other than Trump himself is on a suicide mission,” he added.

But Mr. Ri also said the North’s nuclear program was a deterrent intended to avert an invasion, with the ultimate goal being “balance of power with the U.S.”

“We do not have any intention at all to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against the countries that do not join in the U.S. military actions against” North Korea, Mr. Ri said.


Listening to a statement by Mr. Kim on a public screen in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Friday. Credit Ed Jones/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Over the years, as Pyongyang raced to build a nuclear arsenal, the world has often turned to its neighbors for help: China, because of its economic leverage over the North, and South Korea, because it would suffer the most in any military confrontation.

Now, China and South Korea have been left squirming on the sidelines, with Mr. Kim having been essentially granted his wish: dealing directly with the United States, which the North believes has the most to give.

To the North Koreans, the United States can offer a peace treaty, diplomatic recognition, the easing of sanctions and the withdrawal of American troops from South Korea, which the North considers its existential threat.

Since Mr. Kim came to power nearly six years ago, North Korea has accelerated its nuclear and missile tests to grab Washington’s attention and to force negotiations on terms favorable to the North, according to South Korean intelligence officials and analysts who study Mr. Kim’s motives.

When Mr. Trump made his threat on Tuesday it gave Mr. Kim a perfect chance to square off directly against the United States, they said. In an unprecedented personal statement on Friday, Mr. Kim called Mr. Trump a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard” and Mr. Ri raised the prospect of exploding a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific.

To back up such talk, Mr. Kim will probably carry out more weapons tests, analysts said.

A tremor detected Saturday near North Korea’s underground nuclear-testing site raised fears of another detonation, but South Korean experts said it appeared to have been a natural earthquake.

“We now can’t avoid the military tensions on the Korean Peninsula further escalating,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a North Korea expert at the Sejong Institute, a think tank near Seoul, the South’s capital. The standoff is intensifying partly because “South Korea lacks capabilities to confront North Korea while the North ignores the South and insists on dealing only with the United States,” Mr. Cheong added.

As the crisis spiraled over the last few days, China found itself a bystander — an uncomfortable role for President Xi Jinping, who was most likely seething about Mr. Kim and about the North Korean government’s criticism of China’s most vaunted institution, the Communist Party, as its leadership prepares to meet, analysts said. The North’s Korean Central News Agency referred to a coming party congress in Beijing in unflattering terms on Friday.

The quiet in Beijing illustrated China’s almost complete lack of influence in controlling the North and its unsuccessful efforts to persuade Mr. Trump to tamp down his language, they said.


President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, left, met with President Trump in New York on Thursday. “We need a breathing room, an easing of tensions,” Mr. Moon said on Friday, referring to relations with the North. Credit Tom Brenner/The New York Times

Fearful of failing and of losing face in a peacemaking role, Mr. Xi would be reluctant to make any diplomatic or strategic moves before the party congress opens on Oct. 18, analysts said.

Mr. Xi was left merely humoring Mr. Trump by agreeing to tougher sanctions at the United Nations this past week.

“I think China’s diplomatic leverage over North Korea is zero,” said Feng Zhang, a fellow at the Australian National University’s department of international relations. “North Korea doesn’t want to see Chinese envoys and is not interested in Chinese views.”

President Moon Jae-in of South Korea has also found room for diplomacy shrinking, as North Korea and the United States locked themselves in what he called an escalating “vicious cycle” of provocations and sanctions.

North Korea has not responded to Mr. Moon’s calls for dialogue as it accelerates its missile and nuclear tests. When he came to power in May, Mr. Moon found little leverage left over North Korea: Under his conservative predecessors, South Korea had cut off all trade ties and pulled out all investments in North Korea.

“We need a breathing room, an easing of tensions,” Mr. Moon said Friday.

Mr. Trump, however, has said “talking is not the answer” and ridiculed South Korea for “talk of appeasement.”

Despite the tightening sanctions, North Korea is unlikely to stop weapons tests until it believes it has enough leverage to enter talks as an equal with Washington, some South Korean officials and analysts say. It will reach that point when it has secured a capability to deliver a nuclear payload to the mainland United States, they added.

Although Asia’s regional powers say they want North Korea to stop developing nuclear arms, they are also playing a complex game of geopolitical chess among themselves, which is partly why the nuclear crisis has been so intractable for more than 20 years.

While Mr. Trump is hinting at military action to rid the North of its nuclear arms, South Korea opposes the use of force, fearing war on the peninsula and an attack on Seoul. China also does not want war on its border, hoping that North Korea will remain a Communist buffer against South Korea and its ally, the United States.


President Xi Jinping of China in Beijing this month. Mr. Xi has displayed contempt for Mr. Kim, who is half his age and whom he has never met. Credit Mark Schiefelbein/Associated Press

Mr. Kim’s refusal to listen to China shows how far apart China and the North have become, said Chen Jian, emeritus professor of history at Cornell University.

“Kim and North Korea are making more trouble and headaches for Xi and Beijing than anyone else in today’s world,” Mr. Chen said. “Why should China fight a war against the U.S. for Kim and North Korea’s sake?”

On Saturday, China said it would ban exports of some petroleum products to North Korea, as well as imports of textiles from its neighbor, to comply with new sanctions by the United Nations Security Council. China’s support of the sanctions was largely a nod to Mr. Trump and would be insufficient to cripple the North Korean economy and force it to the negotiating table, Chinese experts said.

Mr. Xi has displayed contempt for Mr. Kim, who is half his age and whom he has never met. His new envoy for North Korean negotiations, Kong Xuanyou, cannot go to Pyongyang because the North Koreans will not let him.

If Mr. Xi thinks Mr. Kim is a lost cause, he would be more likely to turn to Mr. Trump for solutions, but only after the party congress.

In a reflection of the North’s festering anger at China, the Korean Central News Agency carried a column by a writer called Jong Phil at the same time it issued Mr. Kim’s denunciation of Mr. Trump on Friday. The column said that North Korea owed little to the Chinese and that Beijing should consider North Korea more than a “buffer zone” that protects it from “gangsters’ invasion.”

It also questioned whether China’s news media should be “entitled to enter the coming party conference hall” because recent reports had been “betraying the peoples of the two countries.”

Some China experts considered the commentary an attack on a fellow Communist government in almost unheard-of terms.

“This is a very big and serious matter, and certainly unprecedented,” Mr. Chen of Cornell said. “Even during the Cultural Revolution, when Chinese-North Korean relations reached the lowest point, and the Red Guards were making all kinds of nasty attacks on Kim Il-sung — Kim Jong-un’s grandfather — the eldest Kim avoided personally attacking his ‘comrades’ in Beijing.”

Source: NYT > World

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