Donald Trump’s warnings of ‘fire and fury’ will only make it harder to tackle the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear programme

It is not reassuring when the US secretary of state has to reassure his country that it is not on the brink of war. “I think Americans should sleep well at night,” Rex Tillerson told reporters on Wednesday. He was playing down the incendiary words of his president, who had promised “fire and fury like the world has never seen” in response not to an attack but to mere threats from North Korea. It was “language designed to send a strong message” to Pyongyang, Mr Tillerson said.

A few hours later, the defense secretary, James Mattis, weighed in: North Korea should cease “actions that would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people … [it] would lose any arms race or conflict it initiates”. Starker words than Mr Tillerson’s, but similarly designed to shift towards a more traditional message of deterrence: actions (not just threats) have consequences. Most likely this storm will soon pass. The armistice has held since 1953. The dire warnings after China and others joined the nuclear club proved unfounded. The previous North Korea crises have fizzled out; not least because nuclear weapons concentrate most minds.

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