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A new round of blustery threats emerged over North Korea on Tuesday, as President Trump warned that any military action by Pyongyang “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen,” and North Korea’s military signaled it was “carefully examining” a plan to attack Guam.

What could possibly go wrong?

Diplomats lately have been warning of a chain of events they fear could escalate into a deadly new Korean War.

Threats and bluster are part of a familiar and long-running game of brinkmanship between Washington and Pyongyang, but this time, it has been made more dangerous by two volatile new players: Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump.

How would Asian neighbors react if the U.S. struck North Korea?

China would vociferously protest any U.S. airstrikes against North Korea, its traditional communist ally, with the same type of language that Russia used in complaining about the American attack against its ally, the Syrian government. Analysts do not believe that China would directly step into the conflict today as it did during the 1950-1953 Korean War, when Mao Tse-tung sent troops across the Yalu River to fight for North Korea. But Chinese leaders almost certainly would position themselves in a more confrontational position. “I would expect they would move forces toward the border to prevent North Koreans from fleeing into China and to prevent the Americans from becoming more adventurous,” Baker said.

How would military action against North Korea be received in South Korea and Japan?

The U.S. allies of South Korea and Japan might be angrier than China if the United States took unilateral action because they stand to bear the brunt of North Korean retaliation.

Trump’s strong stance toward North Korea could alienate South Koreans. “The safety of South Korea is as important as that of the United States. There should never be a preemptive strike without South Korean consent,” South Korean President Moon Jae-in said in a Facebook post before his election in May. Moon also has said he would try to solve the problem by heading to Pyongyang, not Washington.

Robert Gallucci, a professor at Georgetown University who was with the Clinton administration in 1994 when it considered striking North Korea, said the U.S. would have to spend months preparing its allies to defend themselves and their civilian populations before taking what in military parlance is called “kinetic action.”

The question, he said at a Council on Foreign Relations discussion last month in New York, boils down to this: “Are we ready to go to war? And if we’re not, what the hell are we talking about?”

If we don’t want to go to war, what other options are there?

Trump has said he offered Chinese President Xi Jinping better terms on trade if China would do more to rein in North Korea. Almost all of North Korea’s fuel oil, hard currency, construction material and imported food passes through the 850-mile border between the two countries. The United States also could apply pressure on China with so-called secondary sanctions, which would target Chinese companies and banks that deal with North Korea.

And then, the Trump administration could consider direct negotiations with the North Koreans. During the campaign, Trump offhandedly raised the idea of inviting Kim over for a hamburger. A North Korean delegation was supposed to come to New York last month for back-channel talks, but after the assassination of Kim’s half brother, Kim Jong Nam, in Malaysia, the visa for the head of the delegation was abruptly canceled.

If there ever was a hamburger, it was taken off the table.

Twitter: @BarbaraDemick


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Aug. 8, 4:35 p.m.: This article was updated with new statements from Trump and the North Korean military.

9:15 a.m.: This article was updated with additional statements and analysis.

This article was originally published April 14 at 5 a.m.

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