U.S. of­fers muted re­sponse to N.Korea mis­sile test

Trump, Tiller­son pull back from ear­lier, more dire warn­ings


WASH­ING­TON — So much for North Korea’s re­straint. So much for Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s threats of “fire and fury.”

Af­ter Py­ongyang’s highly provoca­tive mis­sile test over close Amer­i­can ally Ja­pan, Trump of­fered a com­par­a­tively sub­dued re­sponse Tues­day, pulling back from his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­cent sug­ges­tions of a di­a­logue with the com­mu­nist coun­try but also avoid­ing a re­peat of his bom­bas­tic warn­ings ear­lier this month of a po­ten­tial mil­i­tary con­fronta­tion.

In­stead, Trump’s terse, writ­ten state­ment re­it­er­at­ing that all U.S. op­tions are be­ing con­sid­ered pointed to an ad­min­is­tra­tion cau­tiously search­ing for an ef­fec­tive pol­icy, even as the North’s test risked en­dan­ger­ing Ja­panese civil­ians. Wash­ing­ton and its al­lies called an emer­gency U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil meet­ing for later Tues­day, but looked short on new ideas for stop­ping the nu­clear and mis­sile ad­vances that are putting the U.S. main­land within range.

“Threat­en­ing and desta­bi­liz­ing ac­tions only in­crease the North Korean regime’s iso­la­tion in the re­gion and among all na­tions of the world,” Trump said af­ter the North’s mis­sile soared al­most 1,700 miles into the Pa­cific Ocean, trig­ger­ing alert warn­ings in north­ern Ja­pan and shud­ders through­out North­east Asia. “All op­tions are on the ta­ble.”

The tone was far more mod­er­ate than Trump’s col­or­ful lan­guage ear­lier this month, when he spoke of unleashing “fire, fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen be­fore” if North Korea kept threat­en­ing the U.S. There were no in­di­ca­tions Trump had any im­mi­nent in­ten­tion to make good on his threat to strike North Korea.

But such has been the speed of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s zigs and zags on North Korea pol­icy. If Tues­day’s state­ment seemed un­usu­ally re­strained for Trump, it ac­tu­ally marked a tough­en­ing of his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s most re­cent tone.

A se­nior U.S. of­fi­cial said the re­strained nature of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­cent re­sponses was in­ten­tional, re­flect­ing an ef­fort by new White House chief of staff John Kelly to pre­vent a re­peat of the rhetor­i­cal es­ca­la­tion that oc­curred ear­lier this month. But with Trump’s fo­cus di­verted to flood-rav­aged Texas, it was un­clear whether he might ul­ti­mately speak or tweet about the launch in greater de­tail.

Three weeks ago, when North Korea re­sponded to Trump’s “fire and fury” warn­ing by threat­en­ing to launch mul­ti­ple mis­siles near the U.S. Pa­cific ter­ri­tory of Guam, Trump tweeted that an Amer­i­can mil­i­tary so­lu­tion to the stand­off was “locked and loaded.” Ex­perts warned that the rapid-fire es­ca­la­tion had raised the dan­ger of a mis­cal­cu­la­tion among the nu­clear-armed pow­ers.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion’s more cau­tious ap­proach re­flects an ef­fort to pre­serve mod­est signs of progress with North Korea that had led Trump and his top di­plo­mat to hint at the pos­si­bil­ity of di­rect talks, said the of­fi­cial, who wasn’t au­tho­rized to dis­cuss the de­lib­er­a­tions pub­licly and re­quested anonymity.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is “start­ing to re­spect us,” Trump said at a cam­paign rally in Phoenix last week, adding that “maybe, prob­a­bly not, but maybe some­thing pos­i­tive can come about.” Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son cred­ited Kim’s gov­ern­ment with demon­strat­ing “some level of re­straint that we have not seen” by not con­duct­ing a mis­sile test for al­most a month, ex­press­ing hope it might be the “sig­nal that we have been look­ing for,” lead­ing to a di­a­logue.

Even that sug­ges­tion was a surprising one for the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion. On his first trip to Asia, Tiller­son said North Korea must first aban­don its “weapons of mass de­struc­tion” for talks to oc­cur. But he later floated the idea that the North merely had to halt its nu­clear and mis­sile tests. The North has re­jected both de­mands, say­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions hinge on the U.S. drop­ping its “hos­tile pol­icy.”

Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son

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