‘Fire and fury like the world has never seen’

Trump adopts North Korea’s heated rhetoric, prompt­ing fears of a mis­cal­cu­la­tion by ei­ther side in nu­clear cri­sis

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By W.J. Hennigan, David S. Cloud and Noah Bierman

BRIDGEWATER, N.J. — Pres­i­dent Trump starkly warned North Korea to stop mak­ing nu­clear threats Tues­day in the kind of bel­li­cose rhetoric usu­ally associated with the rulers in Py­ongyang, twice declar­ing they will be “met with fire and fury” like the world has never seen.

The pres­i­dent’s dra­matic threat of an­ni­hi­la­tion raised fresh fears of a con­fronta­tion with North Korea, which suc­cess­fully tested an in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­sile last month for the first time and which has vowed to de­fend it­self with nu­clear weapons if nec­es­sary.

Trump’s heated rhetoric ap­par­ently caught the Pen­tagon by sur­prise and fol­lowed a new clas­si­fied in­tel­li­gence as­sess­ment in­di­cat­ing that North Korea has de­vel­oped a war­head de­sign that could fit atop an ICBM.

The in­tel­li­gence re­port hard­ens pre­vi­ous clas­si­fied as­sess­ments that date back to 2013 and re­flects grow­ing con­fi­dence by the U.S. in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity that Py­ongyang had achieved a nu­clear weapons mile­stone af­ter years of un­cer­tainty.

U.S. of­fi­cials cau­tion that North Korea still has not pro­duced a nu­clear war­head ca­pa­ble of sur­viv­ing the in­tense heat, vi­bra­tion and pres­sure of an ICBM’s fiery reen­try into the at­mos­phere, but that step ap­pears in­creas­ingly likely.

A state­ment from North Korea’s mil­i­tary later Tues­day did not men­tion Trump’s threat but warned in­stead that Py­ongyang was “care­fully ex­am­in­ing” a plan to at­tack Guam, the U.S. ter­ri­tory in the western Pa­cific, with “en­velop­ing fire” from medium- and long-range mis­siles.

It urged the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion to “im­me­di­ately stop its reck­less mil­i­tary provo­ca­tion” and warned “it is a day­dream for the U.S. to think that its main­land is … in­vul­ner­a­ble.”

U.S. bombers based on Guam have flown over the Korean penin­sula in re­cent weeks in shows of force in re­sponse to North Korean mis­sile tests. Guam hosts thou­sands of U.S. ser­vice mem­bers at An­der­sen Air Force Base and U.S. Naval Base

Guam.

Trump spoke from the club­house of his golf re­sort in Bedminster, N.J., where he is on what the White House calls a 17-day work­ing va­ca­tion. He adopted the in­flam­ma­tory lan­guage North Korean lead­ers have used for years to threaten the U.S.

“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” Trump told re­porters, his arms folded across his chest, im­me­di­ately over­shad­ow­ing a meet­ing he had called to dis­cuss Amer­ica’s opi­oid epi­demic. “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

He added that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “has been very threat­en­ing beyond a nor­mal state. And as I have said, they will be met with fire, fury and frankly power, the likes of which the world has never seen be­fore.”

For years, Py­ongyang’s of­fi­cial news ser­vice has spewed out hy­per­bolic threats to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire” or en­gulf the United States in “ther­monu­clear war.” Those threats are of­ten re­ceived with shrugs and treated as the stuff of par­ody.

But with Trump re­spond­ing to North Korean bom­bast with his own fiery threat, ex­perts fear he raises the risk of a mis­cal­cu­la­tion that could tempt North Korea to try to up the ante.

“To start throw­ing out this hy­per­bole about death and de­struc­tion, I don’t know how that’s help­ful,” said Carl Baker, a re­tired Air Force of­fi­cer who was sta­tioned in South Korea, now with the Pa­cific Fo­rum CSIS in Honolulu.

Un­til Tues­day, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion had used tra­di­tional diplo­matic chan­nels to deal with the cri­sis, win­ning a unan­i­mous United Na­tions Se­cu­rity Coun­cil vote to im­pose tough sanc­tions on North Korea in re­sponse to its lat­est bal­lis­tic mis­sile tests.

As a show of good faith, Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son of­fered Sun­day to re­sume ne­go­ti­a­tions with Py­ongyang if it would stop bal­lis­tic mis­sile tests.

An­a­lysts fear that Trump’s com­ments added a dangerous new level of brinkman­ship to the nu­clear stand­off be­tween an untested U.S. pres­i­dent and a North Korean ruler who is still in his early 30s.

“My con­cern with Kim Jong Un is that he sees the nu­clear in­stru­ment as the course of his do­mes­tic le­git­i­macy. Ul­ti­mately that could lead to mis­cal­cu­la­tion or an ac­ci­dent,” said Scott Sny­der of the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions.

The lat­est cri­sis be­gan when North Korea tested its first two in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­siles last month, with the sec­ond judged pow­er­ful enough to con­ceiv­ably reach Cal­i­for­nia and beyond. It crashed into the Sea of Ja­pan, ap­par­ently on tar­get.

A De­fense In­tel­li­gence Agency re­port dated that same day, July 28, also rang alarms.

It as­sessed that Py­ongyang is now ca­pa­ble of pro­duc­ing so-called minia­tur­ized nu­clear war­heads — about the size of an out­door garbage can — to fit atop an ICBM, a cru­cial step in the na­tion’s decade-long march to develop a nu­clear strike force, U.S. of­fi­cials said.

The re­port, which was first dis­closed by the Washington Post, also as­sessed that North Korea has stock­piled as many as 60 nu­clear weapons, although out­side anal­y­sis says the ar­se­nal is much smaller, prob­a­bly fewer than 20.

In May, a U.S. in­tel­li­gence threat as­sess­ment given to Congress said Kim had been “pho­tographed be­side a nu­clear war­head de­sign and mis­sile air­frames to show that North Korea has war­heads small enough to fit on a mis­sile, ex­am­in­ing a reen­try-ve­hi­cle nose cone af­ter a sim­u­lated reen­try” and over­see­ing launches that pur­port­edly sim­u­lated use of nu­clear weapons in war.

Scott W. Bray, the U.S. na­tional in­tel­li­gence man­ager for East Asia, said in a June speech that North Korea’s goal is “de­vel­op­ing the abil­ity to de­liver a mis­sile­based nu­clear war­head to North Amer­ica” but that it still faces “sev­eral crit­i­cal short­falls.”

“With suf­fi­cient time, tech­nol­ogy and test­ing, North Korea can over­come de­sign de­fi­cien­cies or other mal­func­tions, in­creas­ing the threat these sys­tems pose to the re­gion and ad­vanc­ing Kim Jong Un’s goals against the con­ti­nen­tal United States,” Bray said, ac­cord­ing to a tran­script re­leased by the Of­fice of the Di­rec­tor of Na­tional In­tel­li­gence.

David Al­bright, a for­mer United Na­tions nu­clear in­spec­tor, said Py­ongyang may have suc­ceeded in build­ing a war­head small enough to fit atop a mis­sile, but he doubts it has mas­tered the tech­ni­cal chal­lenges of launch­ing it on an ICBM to carry out an at­tack.

North Korea is not known to have de­vel­oped a reen­try ve­hi­cle, which car­ries the war­head atop the ICBM, that can sur­vive the in­tense heat, pres­sure and vi­bra­tion as it reen­ters the at­mos­phere from space, he said.

Nor have North Korean tests demon­strated the abil­ity to hit a tar­get like a city with pre­ci­sion, he said.

“I’m skep­ti­cal they’re there,” Al­bright said. “They could put a war­head on it, but it’s very likely it would not sur­vive reen­try or hit its tar­get.”

In North Korea’s tests of in­ter­me­di­ate-range mis­siles, the reen­try ve­hi­cles do not ap­pear to have sur­vived, said Al­bright, who heads a Washington pro­lif­er­a­tion re­search or­ga­ni­za­tion called the In­sti­tute for Science and In­ter­na­tional Se­cu­rity.

Al­bright also has said he is doubt­ful that North Korea had pro­duced 60 nu­clear war­heads.

“I be­lieve that North Korea has had a de­sign for a minia­tur­ized nu­clear war­head that would fit on a ICBM class mis­sile for some time now,” said Joseph S. Ber­mudez Jr., a for­mer U.S. gov­ern­ment ex­pert on North Korea who now works for 38 North, a pri­vate group that fo­cuses on the coun­try. “We just don’t know how re­li­able it is.”

Philip E. Coyle III, a for­mer nu­clear weapons pro­gram ex­ec­u­tive and later a se­nior Pen­tagon of­fi­cial, said the U.S. suc­cess­fully ne­go­ti­ated two weapons agree­ments with North Korea start­ing in the 1990s but let them lapse and squan­dered the next 15 years.

“It is colossal that we have wasted so much time and given North Korea so much abil­ity to develop its weapons,” he said.

He said it is not too late to ne­go­ti­ate an agree­ment, not­ing that Iran was suc­cess­fully pulled back from be­com­ing a nu­clear arms state. “It is still pos­si­ble to pull North Korea back, and the Iran deal shows it,” Coyle said.

Sen. Dianne Fe­in­stein (D-Calif.), a mem­ber of the Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, ex­pressed con­cern about what she called Trump’s “bom­bas­tic com­ments.” She called on the ad­min­is­tra­tion to en­gage Py­ongyang in high-level di­a­logue without pre­con­di­tions. “In my view, diplo­macy is the only sound path for­ward,” she said in a state­ment.

Nicholas Kamm AFP/Getty Im­ages

PRES­I­DENT TRUMP is­sues his warn­ings to North Korea at his golf re­sort in Bedminster, N.J. One an­a­lyst says he doubts North Korea has mas­tered the tech­ni­cal chal­lenges of launch­ing a war­head on an ICBM.

Korean Cen­tral News Agency

NORTH KOREA launched an in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­sile on July 28 that was judged pow­er­ful enough to con­ceiv­ably reach Cal­i­for­nia and beyond.

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