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Trump's North Korea talk 'counterproductive': analysts

© AFP / by Kelly MACNAMARA | US President Donald Trump addresses the General Assembly

SEOUL (AFP) - 

With his threats to "totally destroy" North Korea, Donald Trump is playing into Pyongyang's hands by offering justification for a nuclear weapons programme it insists is for self-defence, analysts say.

The US leader used his maiden speech at the UN General Assembly to deliver a blistering warning to Pyongyang, after it tested its sixth and largest nuclear bomb and responded to new sanctions by launching its longest-ever missile flight over Japan.

Trump said Tuesday that North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un was "on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime".

If the US is "forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea".

Far from persuading Kim to give up his drive for nuclear weapons, analysts said Trump's speech could have the opposite effect.

"With those words, President Trump handed the Kim regime the soundbite of the century," said Marcus Noland at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

"It will play on a continuous loop on North Korean national television" as proof that Pyongyang needs an effective deterrent against what it views as American aggression.

Joel Wit, senior fellow at the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, said despite the bluster, it was far from clear that Washington was ready to pay the human price for a conflict.

But he added Trump was a "wildcard and it's hard for anyone to figure out when he is serious and when he isn't".

The US has 28,500 US troops stationed in the South, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War which ended in a ceasefire rather than a peace treaty.

Aside from the burgeoning nuclear threat, North Korean artillery bristles on the tense frontier, putting nearby Seoul and its millions of inhabitants in the crosshairs of conventional -- and chemical -- weapons.

Japan and its megacities are also within easy reach of Pyongyang's missiles.

Any US attack would risk massive retaliation with a potentially catastrophic loss of life.

Earlier this year Trump's former chief adviser Steve Bannon told The American Prospect: "There's no military solution, forget it."

Trump's comments probably sound to North Korean ears like empty threats, said Wit.

"I suspect they think they are going to prove (Trump) to be a paper tiger," he told AFP.

- 'Where is the red line?' -

But Jeung Young-Tae, director of military studies at Dongyang University in South Korea, said the rising threat from the North meant it was not possible to dismiss Trump's comments as "empty bluffing".

"The problem is, where is the red line to trigger a military option?" he said, adding that while conflict was still very unlikely, the North's continued provocations were making it harder for the US to agree to dialogue.

"Its ICBM and nuclear weapons programmes have become simply too big and too threatening to view as nothing more than a bargaining chip for negotiation. Now the threat is real for many Americans."

If the purpose of Trump's apocalyptic language is to bring the North Koreans to the negotiating table, his piecemeal approach to diplomacy is likely to be working against him, said Mira Rapp-Hooper, senior research scholar at the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School.

In the same General Assembly speech, he also threatened to end a meticulously constructed deal with Iran over its weapons programme -- a move which makes the US look like an unreliable negotiating partner.

China -- the North's only major ally and trading partner -- has tried to cool the hyperbole in an effort to reboot long-stalled talks. But it has faced flak over its apparent reluctance to let the global censure destabilise the Pyongyang regime.

Rapp-Hooper said was unclear whether Trump's "apocalyptic" language was a strategy to scare Beijing to take a tougher line on its isolated neighbour, or a reflection of his belief in the effectiveness of military action.

"But basically that's a unholy choice between a real threat of deliberate war and a reckless gamble that risks horrid miscalculation," she said.

by Kelly MACNAMARA

© 2017 AFP