President Donald Trump’s warning Tuesday that North Korea “will be met with fire and fury” if it continues its saber rattling sparked new fears that the standoff over the regime’s advancing nuclear and missile programs could devolve into a shooting war.
The seemingly off-the-cuff broadside also reignited concerns raised during the presidential campaign that Trump’s tough rhetoric, including his previous calls to build up the American nuclear arsenal, could be dangerously destabilizing.
“The greatest North Korean threat we face is not from a nuclear-tipped missile hitting the U.S. mainland but from Washington stumbling into an inadvertent nuclear war on the Korean peninsula,” Siegfried Hecker, a former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory and a nuclear expert who has visited North Korea seven times since 2004, said in an email.
“The president’s statements exacerbate” such concerns, Hecker said.
The president’s remarks drew an almost immediate response from North Korea, which issued a statement saying it was “carefully examining” a plan to launch a preemptive strike on the U.S. territory of Guam, which lies about 2,000 miles away.
Trump made the comments from his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, where he is staying as the White House undergoes renovations for much of this month.
“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen,” he told reporters, referring to the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. “He has been very threatening beyond a normal state, and as I said, they will be met with fire and fury and, frankly, power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.”
Trump’s warning followed a report by The Washington Post, citing a confidential assessment, that North Korea has successfully created a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can fit inside its missiles.
The United Nations Security Council on Saturday unanimously imposed new sanctions on North Korea estimated at more than $1 billion as punishment for the nation’s outlawed nuclear and missile programs.
North Korea has vowed in response to continue strengthening its nuclear arsenal and threatened “thousands-fold” revenge against the U.S.
The communist government pledged to “make the US pay dearly for all the heinous crimes it commits against the state and people of this country,” warning it will “teach the U.S. a severe lesson.”
Trump’s threat on Tuesday came after a reporter at Bedminster asked about North Korea after the president delivered a statement on the opioid crisis. The White House declined to explain Trump’s choice of words. Counselor Kellyanne Conway told reporters later Tuesday at the nearby Bridgewater Marriott Hotel that the president’s remarks were “very strong and obvious,” declining to elaborate further.
Several White House officials privately downplayed the statement, saying in some ways “it’s the way Trump talks,” in the words of one.
“He’s pissed off in private and he’s pissed off in public,” this person said.
The statement was not vetted through state department channels, one official said, but Trump has asked an increasing number of questions about North Korea, this official said.
A Pentagon spokesman, Col. Robert Manning, said he was “not aware of any change in policy” and directed all questions to the White House. The State Department also declined to comment.
But Trump’s use of the type of melodramatic rhetoric often employed by the reclusive North Korean leader and his government propaganda arms struck some experts as risky.
“What I think the risk is is that the tit-for-tat rhetoric will escalate, and a small incident could explode and build into a larger conflict,” said Kelsey Davenport, director of nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association. “That increases the chance of war or even a nuclear exchange in the region.”
She said the warning could escalate already high tensions and elicit a bellicose response from North Korea, including possibly another intercontinental ballistic missile test.
Others who have been responsible for North Korea policy expressed similar concerns about the president’s approach — and the risk of miscalculation on the North Koreans’ part.
“They might think he means we would strike first. That could escalate out of control,” said Jon Wolfsthal, who was senior National Security Council official in the Obama administration. “Publicly he should say very little other than we will protect and defend ourselves and our allies. In just that calm a way. Privately we should tell North Korea directly that their weapons are unusable and any attack in us or our allies will bring about the end of the North Korean state. Their only option is to not use these weapons and return to negotiations.”
The new warning to North Korea also drew criticism from Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill and renewed calls to find a way to negotiate with North Korea despite its insistence it will not accept as a precondition for talks that it halt its nuclear and missile programs.
“Isolating the North Koreans has not halted their pursuit of nuclear weapons. And President Trump is not helping the situation with his bombastic comments,” said Dianne Feinstein, a senior Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, adding that she believes diplomacy is “the only sound path forward.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told a Phoenix-area radio station, KTAR, that Trump’s comments could bring the United States and North Korea closer to confrontation.
“You got to be sure that you can do what you say you’re going to. In other words, the old walk softly but carry a big stick, Teddy Roosevelt’s saying,” McCain said. “I think this is very, very, very serious.”
Indeed, North Korea’s weapons programs, which are inching dangerously close to being able to strike U.S. territory, are also an increasing domestic concern.
“In some respects, gotten here sooner than we thought,” Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, told POLITICO. “We thought that the trajectory would be sometime in 2020. So we’re earlier than anticipated and we want to make sure that we’re well-protected and everything.
“It can’t not be on your mind when you read the headline that we’re within the reach,” he added. “… No one’s hiding under the desk that I know of at this point. But we do have to make sure we have the technology and awareness of what could happen.”
Nolan McCaskill and Josh Dawsey contributed reporting.
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