Trump steadfast on N. Korea
Now no time to dial back tone, he says
BEDMINSTER, N.J. — President Donald Trump refused to back down Thursday from his threat to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea if that nation endangers the United States, and in the face of bipartisan criticism, said that perhaps he was not harsh enough.
“Frankly, the people who were questioning that statement, was it too tough? Maybe it wasn’t tough enough,” he told reporters. “They’ve been doing this to our country for a long time, for many years, and it’s about time that somebody stuck up for the people of this country and for the people of other countries. So if anything, maybe that statement wasn’t tough enough.”
Trump spoke at his golf club in Bedminster, where he is spending much of the month on a working vacation. He met Thursday with Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, his
national security adviser, and other aides even as tension with North Korea continued to crackle with nuclear-edged bombast. While his advisers have tried to modulate his original comment, made Tuesday in response to North Korean threats, Trump suggested that he had no reason to back off from it.
“We’re backed by 100 percent by our military,” he said. “We’re backed by everybody. And we’re backed by many other leaders.”
Asked what would be tougher than fire and fury, Trump said, “Well, you’ll see, you’ll see.”
But he declined to explicitly say he was considering a pre-emptive military strike. “We don’t talk about that,” he said. “I never do.”
He added: “But I can tell you that what they’ve been doing and what they’ve been getting away with is a tragedy. And it can’t be allowed.”
North Korea has reacted with threats of its own, warning that it might launch, as early as this month, a missile toward the Pacific island of Guam, which is a U.S. territory, adding that it was capable of starting a nuclear war that might reach the continental United States. North Korea recently tested intercontinental ballistic missiles for the first time and has been reported to be making progress toward equipping them with nuclear warheads.
South Korea and Japan warned North Korea that it would face a strong response if it carried through with a threat to launch a missile toward Guam.
Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said it would be legal for Japan to intercept a missile aimed at Guam. North Korea’s threats to strike around Guam pose a serious challenge, a spokesman at South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff told reporters Thursday.
“We give a strict warning,” the spokesman said. “If North Korea commits provocations despite our stern warning, it will face a strong response from South Korea’s military and the U.S.-South Korea alliance.”
Later Thursday, South Korea’s National Security Council took a softer tone, saying the door for dialogue remained open and it would take all possible steps to ease tensions.
For all the bellicose words, Trump said Thursday that he was open to negotiations, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged North Korea to engage in talks. But the president, flanked by Vice President Mike Pence, expressed skepticism that they would lead to a reasonable outcome, given the experiences of his predecessors, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, none of whom were able to resolve the issue through negotiations.
“Sure, we’ll always consider negotiations,” Trump said. “But they’ve been negotiating now for 25 years. Look at Clinton. He folded on the negotiations. He was weak and ineffective. You look what happened with Bush, you look what happened with Obama. Obama, he didn’t even want to talk about it. But I talk. It’s about time. Somebody has to do it. Somebody has to do it.”
Trump’s comments defied critics at home and abroad who have said his choice of words was needlessly bombastic and potentially reckless.
“These statements are irresponsible and dangerous, and also senselessly provide a boon to domestic North Korean propaganda which has long sought to portray the United States as a threat to their people,” more than 60 House Democrats said in a letter Thursday addressed to Tillerson, asking him to restrain the president.
Former President Jimmy Carter, who has visited North Korea three times as a private citizen, added his voice to the criticism.
“In addition to restraining the warlike rhetoric, our leaders need to encourage talks between North Korea and other countries, especially China and Russia,” he said in a statement. “The recent U.N. Security Council unanimous vote for new sanctions suggests that these countries could help. In all cases, a nuclear exchange must be avoided.” He added that all parties must assure the North Koreans that they will forgo “any military action against them if North Korea remains peaceful.”
Military analysts said it was unusual for Pyongyang to give such a precise target for a military action, as it did with its threat to strike near Guam. Still, there were no signs that North Korea was seriously mobilizing its population for war, such as by pulling workers from factories or putting the army on formal alert.
“There’s a lot of theater to this whole thing,” said Bob Carlin, former Northeast Asia chief for the State Department’s intelligence arm.
Similarly, the U.S. military gave no indications that it perceived a seriously escalating threat from Pyongyang, such as moving to evacuate American personnel or their families from Guam, where there are 7,000 U.S. troops, or South Korea, where there are 28,000.
And U.S. officials insisted that no significant number of troops, ships, aircraft or other assets were being directed to the region, beyond any that had been previously scheduled. The officials weren’t authorized to discuss military planning publicly and requested anonymity.
Trump said he would soon announce a request for a budget increase of “billions of dollars” for anti-missile systems.
But as it is, the U.S. has a robust military presence in the region, including six B-1 bombers in Guam and Air Force fighter jet units in South Korea, plus other assets across the Pacific Ocean and in the skies above. Washington’s vast military options range from nothing to a fullon conventional assault by air, sea and ground forces. Any order by the president could be executed quickly.
Current and former U.S. officials said if war did come, the U.S. and its allies would likely hit hard and fast, using airstrikes, drone operations and cyberattacks aimed at military bases, air bases, missile sites, artillery, communications, command and control headquarters, and intelligence gathering and surveillance capabilities.
Key threats would be North Korea’s small but capable navy, including its submarines that can move quietly and attack. Pyongyang also has significant cyber abilities, although not as sophisticated as America’s. The North has also been preparing for ground war for decades and would be a formidable force along the border.
“Do I have military options? Of course I do. That’s my responsibility,” Defense Secretary James Mattis said Wednesday. But he said the Trump administration wants “to use diplomacy.”
Mattis reiterated that goal Thursday, saying the Trump administration is working with its allies on a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
The tragedy of war is well known, he said, and “it doesn’t need another characterization beyond the fact that it would be catastrophic.”
He also pointed out that the Security Council unanimously voted last week to characterize North Korea’s statements as a “threat to the world’s community.”
He asked, “How often do you see France, China, Russia, the U.S. voting unanimously on any issue?”
Trump has tried to persuade China to do more to pressure North Korea to curb its weapons development, only to be disappointed that Beijing has not followed through as strongly as he would like.
Many analysts have suggested that his “fire and fury” language was meant as a signal to China as much as North Korea, making the point that the Chinese need to step up to avoid a conflagration in their own region.
In his comments to reporters Thursday, Trump again suggested that he would bargain with China by backing down from his planned trade war if Beijing did more to resolve the North Korea impasse.
“I think China can do a lot more, yes,” he said. “And I think China will do a lot more. Look, we have trade with China. We lose hundreds of billions of dollars a year on trade with China. They know how I feel. It’s not going to continue like that. But if China helps us, I feel a lot differently toward trade, a lot differently toward trade.”
Separately Thursday, the European Union said it has slapped sanctions on nine North Koreans and four entities including the stateowned Foreign Trade Bank, in addition to those already on its sanctions list.
In a statement, it said the asset freezes and travel bans were added to the EU’s North Korea sanction list to get the bloc into line with a new U.N. Security Council resolution.
The EU move means 62 people and 50 entities, such as companies, organizations or banks, are now under sanctions in line with the U.N. list. The EU has autonomously slapped restrictive measures on a further 41 people and seven entities.
U.S. ally Kuwait, meanwhile, said it will continue to grant visas to North Korean laborers whose wages reportedly aid Pyongyang in evading international sanctions, its government said Thursday, ahead of its ruler’s trip to Washington to meet Trump.
In a statement responding to an Associated Press story, Kuwait also said it never stopped issuing work visas for North Koreans, refuting a State Department human trafficking report released in June that applauded the Mideast nation for taking steps to limit their presence.
Kuwait’s response comes as the U.S. tries to persuade Persian Gulf nations to cut back on using thousands of North Korean workers on major construction projects and to North Korean government-run restaurants in the region. Experts and analysts say the money earned from those enterprises helps Pyongyang buy luxury goods and build its missiles.
Information for this article was contributed by Peter Baker of The New York Times; by Jonathan Lemire, Josh Lederman, Lolita C. Baldor, Eric Talmadge and staff members of The Associated Press; and by Isabel Reynolds and Hooyeon Kim of Bloomberg News.
A man watches a TV screen showing a local news program reporting on North Korea’s threats to strike Guam with ballistic missiles Thursday at the Seoul Train Station in Seoul, South Korea.