‘All options are on the table’
President takes more measured step after N. Korea missile test
President Donald Trump’s response to a military confrontation is more subdued after North Korea’s missile test over U.S. ally Japan.
WASHINGTON — After Pyongyang’s missile test over U.S. ally Japan, President Donald Trump offered a 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 written statement reiterating that all U.S. options are being considered seemed to indicate 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 Tuesday but looked short on new ideas for stopping the nuclear and missile advances that are increasingly 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 and 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 earlier language 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 United States.
If Tuesday’s statement seemed restrained for Trump, it 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.
Three weeks ago, when North Korea responded to Trump’s “fire and fury” warning by threatening to launch 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 officials in the nuclear-armed countries.
The administration’s more cautious approach in recent days 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.”
The optimism generated by North Korea’s temporary lull in missile activity ended Friday, when it fired three short-range projectiles into the sea. It then raised the ante three days later by firing over Japan’s territory, breaking with its usual practice of launching over open seas where there’s no risk that a misfire would land in another country or send debris falling on populated areas.
The Pentagon said it was an intermediate-range missile that landed 500 nautical miles east of Japan.
But for Trump’s earlier bombast, his Tuesday statement wouldn’t have been particularly surprising. Democrat and Republican presidents have routinely offered the “all options on the table” terminology, even though a pre-emptive U.S. military strike is unlikely.
The North said Kim attended Tuesday’s launch.
North Korea has the world’s largest standing army and a massive conventional weapons arsenal that can target the capital of South Korea and its metropolitan area of about 25 million people. American officials have long assessed that mass casualties would likely result. But while U.S. officials had been inclined to overlook Friday’s launches, the launch Tuesday was harder to ignore.
Friday’s rocket tests represented a typical North Korean response to annual U.S.-South Korean military drills that Pyongyang claims are rehearsals for invasion. This year’s war games started last week and end Thursday.
Tuesday’s launch was altogether more provocative. It was only the third time North Korea has fired a missile over Japan. The previous occasions in 1998 and 2009 used rockets purportedly for space exploration. This time, the North tested a ballistic missile designed for military strikes and believed capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.
Trump and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan conferred by telephone, agreeing that North Korea poses “a grave and growing direct threat,” the White House said. They vowed to increase pressure on the North.
“Japan’s and the U.S. positions are totally at one,” Abe added in a statement, saying Trump expressed his “strong commitment” to defend Japan.
Tokyo keeps track of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Donald Trump’s views after North Korea’s launch Tuesday.