White House’s mixed mes­sages on North Korea

As mis­siles fly, Trump and of­fi­cials blend bel­li­cose rhetoric with ‘peace­ful pres­sure.’

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Tracy Wilkin­son and W.J. Hen­ni­gan

WASH­ING­TON — With few good mil­i­tary or diplo­matic op­tions and the dan­ger clearly es­ca­lat­ing, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is strug­gling with how to con­front a nu­clear-armed North Korea that sud­denly ap­pears ca­pa­ble of hit­ting Cal­i­for­nia and beyond with a bal­lis­tic mis­sile.

As ex­perts study whether Py­ongyang’s sec­ond in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal mis­sile test landed on tar­get in the Sea of Ja­pan, as ini­tial re­ports in­di­cated, or dis­in­te­grated af­ter it reen­tered the at­mos­phere late Friday, as some ev­i­dence sug­gests, se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials have given mixed mes­sages about a pos­si­ble U.S. re­sponse.

It’s un­clear whether the dis­parate mes­sages — par­tic­u­larly over whether the U.S. seeks the ouster of North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un — rep­re­sent a de­lib­er­ate ef­fort to keep Py­ongyang off guard as to U.S. in­ten­tions, or in­di­cates am­biva­lence on a ma­jor for­eign pol­icy issue in a White House bat­tling chaos on sev­eral fronts.

Pres­i­dent Trump re­peat­edly in­sisted this week that he will “han­dle” North Korea and on Wed­nes­day he signed leg­is­la­tion that will im­pose more sanc­tions on Py­ongyang. But he has not in­di­cated how he would defuse the mount­ing threat beyond de­mand­ing that China ap­ply more po­lit­i­cal and econo-

mic pres­sure to rein in its neigh­bor.

Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son leaves Thursday for an Assn. of South­east Asian Na­tions se­cu­rity con­fer­ence in Manila. De­spite the ris­ing ten­sion, he will not meet North Korea’s for­eign min­is­ter, Ri Yong Ho, while in the Philip­pines, of­fi­cials said Wed­nes­day.

But Tiller­son used a news con­fer­ence Tues­day at the State Depart­ment to seem­ingly speak di­rectly to the lead­ers in Py­ongyang.

“We do not seek a regime change,” he said. “We do not seek the col­lapse of the regime. We do not seek an ac­cel­er­ated re­uni­fi­ca­tion of the penin­sula. We do not seek an ex­cuse to send our mil­i­tary north of the 38th par­al­lel,” the heav­ily guarded bor­der between North and South Korea.

“And we’re try­ing to con­vey to the North Kore­ans we are not your en­emy, we are not your threat,” he added. “But you are pre­sent­ing an un­ac­cept­able threat to us, and we have to re­spond.”

Tiller­son de­scribed U.S. sanc­tions on North Korea and ef­forts to iso­late it diplo­mat­i­cally, po­lit­i­cally and eco­nom­i­cally as “peace­ful pres­sure.”

CIA Direc­tor Mike Pom­peo had sug­gested a more bel­li­cose ap­proach at a se­cu­rity con­fer­ence in Colorado last month. He re­peat­edly called for sep­a­rat­ing Kim from his nu­clear ar­se­nal, say­ing the North Korean peo­ple “would love to see him go.”

“It would be a great thing to de­nu­cle­arize the penin­sula,” Pom­peo said at the Aspen Se­cu­rity Fo­rum on July 21. “But the thing that is most dan­ger­ous about it is the char­ac­ter who holds the con­trol over them to­day.”

He added: “So from the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s per­spec­tive, the most im­por­tant thing we can do is separate those two.”

Pom­peo said the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity and the Depart­ment of De­fense have been tasked with draft­ing plans for what “ul­ti­mately needs to be achieved” with re­gard to North Korea’s nu­clear threat.

“As for the regime, I am hope­ful we will find a way to separate that regime from this sys­tem,” he said. “The North Korean peo­ple I’m sure are lovely peo­ple and would love to see him go.”

Ex­perts say North Korea still does not have a re­li­able in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­sile, or ICBM. It also has not built a nu­clear war­head small enough to fit atop an ICBM and ro­bust enough to sur­vive the in­tense heat and pres­sure of reen­try. But both those achieve­ments now ap­pear within reach.

Af­ter the lat­est test, the U.S. and its re­gional al­lies re­sponded with a sym­bolic show of force.

On Satur­day, U.S. and South Korean forces launched salvos of mis­siles into the sea from South Korea’s east coast. The next day, the U.S. Air Force flew two su­per­sonic B-1 bombers over the Korean penin­sula along with fighter jets from Ja­pan and South Korea.

U.S. forces in Alaska also con­ducted what of­fi­cials de­scribed as a suc­cess­ful test of the Ter­mi­nal High Alti­tude Area De­fense sys­tem, which was re­cently de­ployed in South Korea. They said the an­timis­sile sys­tem de­tected, tracked and in­ter­cepted a medium-range bal­lis­tic mis­sile over the Pa­cific.

Of­fi­cials later ac­knowl­edged that the truck­mounted sys­tem is not ca­pa­ble of shoot­ing down an ICBM and said the test had been pre­vi­ously sched­uled.

On Wed­nes­day, the U.S. Air Force launched an un­armed Min­ute­man III from Van­den­berg Air Force Base into the cen­tral Pa­cific. It was the fourth test of the ICBM, which can carry a nu­clear war­head, from the Santa Bar­bara County base this year.

“North Korea re­mains the most ur­gent threat to re­gional sta­bil­ity,” said Gen. Ter­rence J. O’Shaugh­nessy, com­man­der of the Air Force com­po­nent in U.S. Pa­cific Com­mand. “If called upon, we are ready to re­spond with rapid, lethal and over­whelm­ing force at a time and place of our choos­ing.”

De­fense Sec­re­tary James N. Mat­tis has sought to down­play the like­li­hood of a U.S. at­tack. But he also has said Py­ongyang must “change its be­hav­ior.”

Gen. Joseph F. Dun­ford Jr., chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said a U.S. mil­i­tary strike re­mains an op­tion if all oth­ers fail, even though an armed con­flict with Py­ongyang could pro­duce mil­lions of ca­su­al­ties in the two Koreas and Ja­pan.

“Many peo­ple have talked about mil­i­tary op­tions with words like ‘unimag­in­able,’ ” Dun­ford said at the Aspen con­fer­ence. “I would prob­a­bly shift that slightly and say it would be hor­rific … a loss of life un­like any we have ex­pe­ri­enced in our life­times.”

The mixed mes­sages start from the White House, where Trump as­serted Satur­day on Twit­ter that China has done “NOTH­ING for us … just talk” to help with North Korea.

“We will no longer al­low this to con­tinue,” he added. “China could eas­ily solve this prob­lem!”

The State Depart­ment of­fered a dif­fer­ent view Wed­nes­day. Su­san Thorn­ton, the act­ing as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of State for East Asian and Pa­cific af­fairs, said China has taken “un­prece­dented steps” to rein in North Korea.

“They re­al­ize that this is be­com­ing a greater and greater threat to China’s own se­cu­rity,” she told re­porters. China is show­ing “grow­ing de­ter­mi­na­tion” to ad­dress the cri­sis but “can do a lot more,” she added.

“We would like to see more action, faster and more ob­vi­ous, and quick re­sults,” Thorn­ton said. “But I think we’re not giv­ing up yet.”

China has urged Wash­ing­ton to ne­go­ti­ate di­rectly with Py­ongyang, a prospect that Trump ap­peared to con­sider in May when he said he would be “honored” to meet with Kim “un­der the right cir­cum­stances.”

No such meet­ing ap­pears likely. Tiller­son re­peated U.S. de­mands Tues­day that North Korea give up its nu­clear arms uni­lat­er­ally be­fore any di­rect talks, a pre­con­di­tion that Kim’s gov­ern­ment dis­misses out of hand.

Some for­eign pol­icy ex­perts have ad­vo­cated for China to take the lead in talks pat­terned af­ter the six­na­tion talks that bro­kered the Ira­nian nu­clear dis­ar­ma­ment deal in 2015.

Pre­vi­ous multilateral talks with Py­ongyang col­lapsed in 2009 af­ter the United Na­tions Se­cu­rity Coun­cil slapped new sanc­tions on North Korea for test­ing a three-stage rocket in vi­o­la­tion of a U.N. res­o­lu­tion. Py­ongyang pulled out of the talks in protest and they have not re­sumed.

Se­nior Air­man Ian Dud­ley Van­den­berg Air Force Base

AN UN­ARMED Min­ute­man III is launched from Van­den­berg Air Force Base in Santa Bar­bara County. The ICBM can carry a nu­clear war­head. CAL­I­FOR­NIA

Kim Won-jin AFP/Getty Im­ages

IN PY­ONGYANG, North Korea, peo­ple gather Satur­day to watch cov­er­age of the mis­sile launch late Friday.

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