WASHINGTON: Bill Richardson, the US politician and diplomat who has spent years quelling crises with North Korea, says President Donald Trump and Korean leader Kim Jong-Un's increasingly unrestrained verbal provocations raise the risk that a small security accident could lead to war.
With Trump threatening to rain "fire and fury" on the North while his top diplomat Rex Tillerson says he has "no concerns," Richardson told AFP in an interview that the unclear US stance is as dangerous as Pyongyang's fiery threat to launch missiles near Guam.
Q: Have we gone past the point of talks?
Richardson: "Pretty close. The two leaders seem to want to out-macho each other, out-shout each other and it's very unhelpful because it prevents the diplomats from trying to find a diplomatic out.
It's unfortunate because I don't think the president is going to change. He just doesn't listen to anybody, and Kim Jong-Un is unpredictable, so you're faced with those serious obstacles."
Q: What is the risk?
A: "It's looking close to the possibility for a miscalculation. The miscalculation may be a minor one, a fishing boat being shot at by the North Koreans, airspace invasion, artillery shells. That's where I've dealt with the North Koreans in the past, when these little incidents provoke the potential for real military action on either side."
Q: What do you think is going on in Pyongyang?
A: "The North Korean situation is very bleak. There's no information coming out of there except for the leader's statements. What worries me is not the daily attacks by the North Koreans. They always make those threats. What worries me is the heightened intensity of those attacks, they get specific about Guam, that they involve the foreign minister himself, Ri Yong-ho, who is a reasonable person, making those bombastic statements. I haven't seen that level of intensity."
Q: Are you reassured by the more prudent talk by Secretary of State Tillerson and other top Trump advisors?
A: "I believe they are level-headed, but they are speaking with mixed messages. They are not coordinating, and the biggest obstacle is the president himself, who either is not listening or is not talking to his advisors, or is off on his own.
The problem is the president and the mixed messages that his team is sending. My hope is he listens the most to Tillerson, as he should: he's the secretary of state. That's where policy should emanate, not from others."
Q: Are there people around Kim who are also more sober about the risks of escalating threats?
A: "A lot of the people in the foreign ministry I've known, they are level-headed, they are realistic. The issue is, do they have any juice, any clout with the security people, with Kim Jong-un? I don't know the answer.
Ri is level-headed. He speaks good English, he knows the US. But he's now foreign minister, he's got to follow the party line."
Q: What could keep a lid on this crisis?
A: "My only hope is that the Chinese are quietly working this with the North Koreans. They are the only ones that I believe that are having contacts right now."