Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Saturday urged the United States to show restraint after North Korea’s latest missile test and to avoid playing into the hands of leader Kim Jong-un, who “wants to end the world”.
Tensions between the US and the North have risen sharply in recent weeks as a series of North Korean missile tests have prompted dire warnings from President ‘s administration about curtailing its nuclear weapons programme.
US officials have repeatedly warned “all options are on the table” – including military strikes – to curb the North’s nuclear ambitions.
The US has deployed an American naval strike group – the USS Carl Vinson – off the Korean peninsula. North Korea has responded by threatening to sink the aircraft carrier and launch nuclear attacks on the US’ regional allies South Korea and Japan.
The notoriously blunt Duterte said the Southeast Asia region was extremely worried about tensions between the United States and North Korea, and said one misstep would be a “catastrophe” and Asia would be the first victim of a nuclear war.
The United States, Japan, South Korea and China, he said, were sparring with a man who was excited about the prospect of firing missiles.
Duterte is current chairman of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and was to speak by telephone to US President Donald Trump later on Saturday. He said he would urge Trump not to get into a confrontation with Kim.
“There seems to be two countries playing with their toys and those toys are not really to entertain,” he told a news conference after the ASEAN summit in Manila, referring to Washington and Pyongyang.
“You know that they are playing with somebody who relishes letting go of missiles and everything. I would not want to go into his [Kim’s] mind because I really do not know what’s inside but he’s putting Mother Earth, the planet to an edge.”
North Korea test-fired a ballistic missile on Saturday shortly after US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned that failure to curb Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes could lead to “catastrophic consequences”.
US and South Korean officials said the test appeared to have failed, in what would be the North’s fourth straight unsuccessful missile test since March.
The USS Carl Vinson, meanwhile, kicked off a joint military drill with the South Korean navy on Saturday.
“Immediately after the aircraft carrier arrived in the Sea of Japan, South Korea and the US strike forces launched a drill from 6:00pm [09:00GMT],” a defence ministry spokesman told AFP news agency.
The drill aimed to verify the allies’ capability to track and intercept enemy ballistic missiles, he said. He declined to clarify how long the drill would last, but Yonhap news agency said it was expected to continue until sometime next week.
The manoeuvres will also include a live-fire exercise and anti-submarine exercises, the spokesman added.
Duterte said it was incumbent upon the United States as the responsible country to not rise to Kim’s provocations. He said he was sure Trump had cautioned his military not to allow the situation to spiral out of control.
“Who am I to say that you should stop? But I would say ‘Mr President, please see to it that there is no war because my region will suffer immensely,’” Duterte said.
“I will just communicate to [Trump], ‘just let him play … do not play into his hands’.”
He added: “The guy [Kim] simply wants to end the world, that is why he is very happy. He is always smiling. But he really wants to finish everything and he wants to drag us all down.”