The Trump administration escalated its warnings to North Korea on Sunday, with Defense Secretary James Mattis warning of a “massive military response” and the potential to carry out “total annihilation” of the rogue state if it threatens to attack the United States and its allies.
The striking statement followed President Donald Trump’s own warnings on Sunday in the wake of Pyongyang’s latest major provocation, as he also upped pressure on South Korea and China to help contain North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
In a series of tweets, Trump accused South Korea of “appeasement” toward North Korea and warned that the United States is looking at halting trade with any country doing business with the repressive regime, a threat that is almost impossible to back up given American dependence on Chinese imports.
Mattis then delivered the military threat outside the West Wing on Sunday afternoon. “Any threat to the United States or its territories, including Guam, or our allies, will be met with a massive military response — a response both effective and overwhelming,” Mattis told reporters after meeting at the White House with Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “We are not looking to the total annihilation of a country, namely North Korea, but as I said, we have many options to do so.”
The latest warnings from Trump and the Pentagon chief come after North Korea claimed earlier Sunday that it had detonated a hydrogen bomb that could be attached to an intercontinental missile capable of reaching the mainland United States.
It was not immediately clear whether Pyongyang had actually accomplished such a feat, which would be a major advancement in its nuclear capabilities, but the claim was nonetheless a significant act of aggression.
“North Korea has conducted a major Nuclear Test. Their words and actions continue to be very hostile and dangerous to the United States,” Trump wrote on Twitter on Sunday morning. “North Korea is a rogue nation which has become a great threat and embarrassment to China, which is trying to help but with little success.”
Trump also expressed frustration at South Korea’s “appeasement” toward its northern neighbor, with which it has technically been at war since 1950.
“South Korea is finding, as I have told them, that their talk of appeasement with North Korea will not work, they only understand one thing!” he added in another tweet.
The rebuke to the critical American ally in the region took many by surprise. The United States and South Korea regularly conduct joint military exercises to deter North Korean aggression, and the U.S. has nearly 25,000 troops stationed in the country.
Trump’s latest round of tough talk comes after the president on Saturday said he is considering withdrawing from a free trade agreement with South Korea, a move that could further complicate efforts to respond to North Korea’s nuclear advancements.
Trump later said, also by Twitter, “The United States is considering, in addition to other options, stopping all trade with any country doing business with North Korea.”
Trump has repeatedly sought to use the U.S. economic relationship with China as leverage to cut off Chinese support for the North Korean regime. So far, that strategy has borne little fruit.
Asked by reporters when exiting church Sunday morning whether he plans to attack North Korea, Trump replied, “We’ll see.”
The latest back-and-forth marked a significant escalation in tensions between Pyongyang and Trump, who has threatened that North Korea will suffer “fire and fury” if it doesn’t back off its provocations.
Trump also said he would be meeting with his chief of staff John Kelly, Mattis and other military leaders at the White House to discuss the latest developments. Meanwhile, the U.S. on Sunday afternoon was joined by Japan, South Korea, France and the United Kingdom in calling for an emergency United Nations Security Council meeting on the situation.
The North Korea situation has become increasingly unstable in recent months as the rogue nation takes increasingly bellicose steps and Trump has not shied from a war of words. Just last week, Trump seemed to indicate an end to his diplomatic patience, tweeting that “Talking is not the answer!”
Mattis later clarified that the U.S. was not out of diplomatic solutions.
Mattis denied the statement was a break from Trump. “I agree with the president, we should not be talking right now to a nation that’s firing missiles over the top of Japan, an ally. So I was — he said, ‘We’re not talking to them.’ I agree 100 percent,” Mattis said Thursday. “But we’re not done with diplomacy.”
Some experts view North Korea’s latest test as another sign that time is running out to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
“I do think it changes the urgency to engage in North Korea,” said Philip Coyle, a former head of weapons testing for the Pentagon who is now at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation in Washington. “Obviously, time is not on our side here, with North Korea doing more missile tests and now six nuclear tests. The pace of the missile program has picked up, and so, you could argue, has the nuclear program. The yield keeps going up.”
Coyle, who also oversaw nuclear weapons development at the Department of Energy, is confident that the North Koreans are working on more powerful atomic weapons, including possibly a two-stage hydrogen bomb as Pyongyang claims — or at minimum a souped-up version of its earlier weapons tests.
The second burst of seismic activity that followed the original underground blast on Sunday, he said, strongly suggests that either something went wrong with the test or that the tunnel facility where it was conducted collapsed and radioactive samples may have been released into the atmosphere.
“The Air Force could analyze those air samples,” he said, “to help further analyze the yield.”
Speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said he’s preparing new economic sanctions against North Korea. “It’s clear this behavior is completely unacceptable,” Mnuchin said.
Other Washington figures reacted strongly on Sunday.
“North Korea, right now, is the most dangerous place on the face of the planet,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) on ABC’s “This Week.” “Kim Jong Un, who is the dictator there, he is radical. He is unpredictable. He is extreme. And he is getting more and more dangerous weapons.”
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) called on China to do more to defuse tensions.
“Obviously, we hope that China exercises its leverage,” he told Dana Bash on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “They have considerably more leverage than we do. But I think, given where they are, we see the limits of economic sanctions obviously on North Korea.”
Trump was also the target of some criticism.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) mocked the president for aiming his fire at South Korea.
“Foreign policy, unhinged,” he tweeted. “Find me one expert whose advice on how to deal with North Korea is ‘Pick a fight with South Korea.’ “
The Arms Control Association, a leading Washington think tank dedicated to nuclear disarmament, issued a statement saying, “President Donald Trump and his administration have failed to competently execute their own stated policy of ‘maximum pressure and engagement’ with North Korea.”
It said it believes Trump “has greatly exacerbated the risks through irresponsible taunts and threats of U.S. military force that only give credibility to the North Korean propaganda line that nuclear weapons are necessary to deter U.S. aggression, and have spurred Kim Jong-un to accelerate his nuclear program.”
The think tank’s experts said they have concluded that the latest nuclear test was of a weapon with a magnitude of at least 100 kilotons, many times more powerful that the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in World War II, adding that the available data “strongly suggests that North Korea has indeed successfully tested a compact but high-yield nuclear device that can be launched on intermediate- or intercontinental-range ballistic missiles.”
“This capability has been reached since U.S. President Donald Trump threatened North Korea with ‘fire and fury’ if Pyongyang continued its nuclear and missile pursuits Aug. 8,” it added.
Kelsey Tamborrino and Nahal Toosi contributed to this report.
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