HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — As President Trump ramps up his bellicose rhetoric toward North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, leaders and ordinary citizens across Asia are watching with various states of alarm, unsure which man poses a greater danger to their safety.
In Seoul, the capital of South Korea, where the specter of a North Korean attack has hung over the population’s head for decades, many say they aren’t particularly concerned about the escalating threats coming from the North Korean government, which has long menaced its next-door neighbor.
The metropolitan area of Seoul is home to 25 million people and remains vulnerable not just to a nuclear attack from North Korea but to a strike from the massive buildup of conventional artillery at the border just 35 miles away.
Hong Ji-eun, 28, an assistant marketing manager, said that the latest provocations don’t worry her. “North Korea has been threatening us every day, but we know from experience that the so-called potential threats didn’t really cause anything,” she said. “I believe it’s really similar to asking a Japanese person, ‘How could you live with all the potential earthquakes?’”
She said that Kim poses the greater risk to their safety than Trump because she believes the U.S. will ultimately act rationally. “North Korea is a somewhat isolated country, capable of making decisions that would seem irrational in our sense, which can bring devastating consequences,” she said.
Bae Sung-huyn, 28, a PhD candidate at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, agreed that North Korea’s chronic provocations have made him insensitive to rising tensions. But he added that as a dictator, Kim has the capacity to act with more autonomy than Trump.
“Kim Jong-un worries me a lot more,” he said. “Trump is warning North Korea of possible retaliatory actions for North Korea’s threats and attacks. The president does have a lot of authority; however, he cannot perform such a big issue on his own. It worries me that Kim Jong-un’s actions have been somehow much more impulsive than his father, Kim Jong Il.”
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who was elected this spring on a promise to improve ties with the North, called on Kim to stop making threats. But he also offered to open a dialogue to help defuse tensions.
After a meeting of South Korea’s National Security Council on Thursday, the government said diplomacy was still on the table. The council “decided to take active diplomatic measures to help ease tension while keeping the country’s door for dialogue with North Korea,” said Park Soo-hyun, a presidential spokesperson.
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North Korea’s threat to develop a plan by mid-August to launch four ballistic missiles in waters near Guam, a U.S. Territory in the western Pacific that hosts 7,000 U.S. troops, has alarmed not only that country’s 160,000 residents but others in the region.
In the Philippines, which could be vulnerable to debris from missile strikes by North Korea towards Guam, many residents are watching the situation with concern.
Rosanna V. Misa, 47, a homemaker in Manila, said she is worried about the possibility of missiles falling into the Philippines, and accused Trump and Kim of escalating the danger of conflict.
“Kim scares me more,” she said. “I don’t think he understands the repercussions of all that posturing and the threats he’s made all this time. He cannot take criticism and he seems to be confined to his own little bubble. Mr Trump’s lack of diplomacy makes it worse. Loose cannon and loose mouth — nobody wins.”
Alvin Yana, a consultant for an international development aid group in Davao, a city on the southern island of Mindanao, places the blame squarely on Trump for raising the temperature level.
“Trump’s immature bullying against North Korea, triggered by such a sick mind, could kill millions in so many innocent countries including the Philippines,” he said. “I hope the U.S. Congress removes him from office.”
Dina Libunao, 48, who works in corporate communications for a Philippine airline, also said she is more worried about Trump. “I’m not scared of (Kim), the one who is all talk yet we know has no real capability of war of more than few days,” said Libunao. “Be more scared of the U.S. when it takes action. It walks the talk.”
The Philippines hosted a regional summit last week at which President Rodrigo Duterte warmly welcomed North Korean foreign minister Ri Yong Ho, telling him, “We would be a good dialogue partner.” However, the volatile Philippine leader has also called Kim a “maniac” who “simply wants to end the world.”
Japan deployed its Patriot missile defense system at various points around the country on Saturday just days after warning that its military could shoot down missiles fired from North Korea towards Guam.
During a session of Japan’s parliament Thursday, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said that an attack against Guam would be considered an existential threat to Japan, which has a mutual defense agreement with the United States.
China has found itself the target of verbal jabs by Trump for failing to do more to contain the North Korean threat, but the Beijing government, Kim’s chief political ally and economic lifeline, is urging the U.S. president to tone down his rhetoric.
President Xi Jinping urged Trump in a phone call Saturday to avoid “words and deeds” that would “exacerbate” the already tense situation on the Korean Peninsula, Chinese state television CCTV reported.
China’s Global Times, a state-run newspaper, said in an editorial that China would remain neutral if North Korea attacked first, but not if the U.S. started a conflict.
“If the U.S. and South Korea carry out strikes and try to overthrow the North Korean regime and change the political pattern of the Korean Peninsula, China will prevent them from doing so,” the editorial said.
Other reaction around the Asian region was a mixture of wariness and confusion.
In Ho Chi Minh City, Dang Nguyen, 26, an associate professor, said most people aren’t discussing the threat of war breaking out in the region too seriously, but many are confounded by the impulsiveness of both leaders.
“Who’s the bad guy?” she said. “It’s interesting — the president of the United States and Kim Jong-un, and you’re not sure who the bad guy is. It shouldn’t be tough to figure out, but I can’t tell.”