Mattis cools war rhetoric after North Korean missile test
Defense Secretary James Mattis tried to turn down the temperature Thursday on the confrontation over North Korea’s first successful test of an intercontinental ballistic missile, saying the move had not pushed the U.S. closer to the brink of war while warning Pyongyang that it risked “severe consequences” if it continued down the path toward a long-range nuclear weapon.
Defense Department and private analysts were blindsided by Pyongyang’s July 4 test of its first intercontinental ballistic missile, whose range is calculated to be able reach the entire state of Alaska.
But following strong condemnations Wednesday by President Trump and Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley, Mr. Mattis, a retired four-star Marine general, arrived unannounced at the Pentagon press briefing room Thursday to deliver a more tempered conclusion.
“I do not think this capability, in and of itself, brings us closer to war,” Mr. Mattis said of the launch of the Hwasong-14 missile, which flew higher and farther than any previous North Korean missile.
“The president’s been very clear, the secretary of state’s been very clear, that we are leading with diplomatic and economic efforts,” Mr. Mattis said.
Mr. Trump, who dined with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Germany on Thursday evening, talked tough but stayed far away from specifics on what he planned to do about Pyongyang.
Talking to reporters in Poland before traveling to Germany, Mr. Trump said only that he had “some pretty severe things” in mind to respond to the North’s missile test.
“That doesn’t mean we are going to do them,” Mr. Trump quickly added, acknowledging the dicey situation. “I think we will just take a look at what happens over the coming weeks and months with respect to North Korea.
“It is a shame that they are behaving this way,” the president said. “But they are behaving in a very, very dangerous manner and something will have to be done about it.”
A day earlier, Mrs. Haley bluntly warned that a U.S. military response was on the table, saying Pyongyang’s actions were “quickly closing off the possibility of a diplomatic solution.”
“One of our capabilities lies with our considerable military forces. We will use them if we must, but we prefer not to have to go in that direction,” she said at an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council.
Leading with diplomacy
Cooling the hawkish rhetoric, Mr. Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon that the Trump administration was still pursuing a diplomatic, not military, strategy to address the North Korean threat.
“The military remains ready,” he said. “We stand ready to provide options if necessary, but this is a purely diplomatically led [effort] buttressed by the military.”
Mr. Mattis refused to detail potential military actions should diplomatic efforts fail to curb Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
“We will address this one step at a time,” he said.
The U.S. and its allies concede that they have few levers to pressure North Korea, which has pursued nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them despite years of sanctions and international isolation. Mr. Trump has expressed growing frustration that China — the North’s sole significant ally, trading partner and source of aid — has not done more to restrain North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
A military strike runs the risk of igniting a regional war that threatens massive loss of life in South Korea and Japan. Tens of thousands of U.S. troops are stationed in both countries.
Russia and China have complicated the Trump administration’s hopes to present a united front against North Korea, floating a plan this week to freeze the North’s nuclear and missile programs in exchange for an end to joint South Korean-U.S. military exercises that the North considers a prelude to an invasion. The U.S. has rejected that approach.