The insults traded between Washington and Pyongyang tend to induce despair or laughter. We need to take them more seriously

The escalating rhetoric of both North Korea and the US president is prone to polarise its audience, resulting in two contradictory and equally imprudent strains of reaction. The first is panic. As the Trumpian tweets and blasts of Pyongyang propaganda grow more extreme, the spectre of war coalesces in the public mind. But it is still a spectre, and the most likely outcome is that the immediate crisis will pass as the others have: without satisfactory resolution, but also without catastrophe. The Korean peninsula is unlikely to go up in flames just yet, despite the fondness of both sides for threats of fire and ashes.

The second is premature relief as the insults and missiles fly without resulting in any real-life casualties, unless one counts the egos of Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump. These bombastic, swaggering adversaries could be straight from the pages of a satirical novel; the tendency to treat North Korea as comic relief is understandable, but profoundly wrong. There is nothing funny about the US telling a leadership with good reason to fear regime change that it “won’t be around much longer” and threatening to “totally destroy” a country it previously carpet-bombed. Nor about North Korea describing the first remark as a “declaration of war” and threatening in response to shoot down US bombers outside its airspace.

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