Trump team swings between alarm, reassurance on North Korea threat
President Donald Trump and his top national security aides delivered contrasting messages of alarm and reassurance over North Korea’s expanding nuclear capabilities, with the commander in chief touting America’s atomic supremacy a day after threatening “fire and fury’’ for the communist country.
As international alarm escalated over the still-remote possibility of nuclear confrontation, Trump on Wednesday dug in on his threats of military action and posted video of his ultimatum to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. In a rare flexing of America’s own nuclear might, Trump said his first order as president was to “renovate and modernize’’ an arsenal that is “now far stronger and more powerful than ever before.’’
The suggestion that Trump has done anything to enhance U.S. nuclear firepower was immediately disputed by experts, who noted no progress under Trump’s presidency. Still, Trump tweeted: “Hopefully we will never have to use this power, but there will never be a time that we are not the most powerful nation in the world!’’
The tweets did little to soothe concerns in the United States and beyond that Trump was helping push the standoff with North Korea into unchartered and even more dangerous territory. While the prospect of military action by either side appears slim, given the level of devastation that would ensue, Trump’s talk Tuesday of “fire and fury like the world has never seen’’ compounded fears of an accident or misunderstanding leading the nuclear-armed nations into conflict.
This week, an official Japanese report and a classified U.S. intelligence document, as reported by The Washington Post, combined to suggest that the North was closer to being able to strike the United States with a nuclear missile than previously believed. The U.S. document reportedly assessed that the North had mastered the ability to fit a nuclear warhead on its long-range missiles.
After North Korea issued its own warning to the U.S., suggesting it could attack the American territory of Guam, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sought to calm the sense of crisis.
Speaking earlier Wednesday on his way home from Asia, he credited Trump with sending a strong message to the North Korean leader on the “unquestionable’’ U.S. ability to defend itself, so as to prevent “any miscalculation.’’ Tillerson insisted the U.S. isn’t signalling a move toward military action, while it pursues a policy of sanctions and isolation of North Korea.
“Americans should sleep well at night,’’ Tillerson told reporters. He added: “Nothing that I have seen and nothing that I know of would indicate that the situation has dramatically changed in the last 24 hours.’’
No sooner had Tillerson ratcheted down the rhetoric than Defence Secretary Jim Mattis ratcheted it back up.
Echoing Trump’s martial tone, Mattis said North Korea should stand down its nuclear weapons program and “cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people.’’ As seldom as it is for a president to speak of using nuclear missiles, the reference to the “destruction’’ of a foreign people is equally rare.
People walk by a TV screen showing a local news program reporting with an image of U.S. President Donald Trump at the Seoul Train Station in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday.