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President Trump on Thursday defended — but did not repeat — his threat to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea, a tricky diplomatic balancing act as he worked to resolve the most serious international confrontation of his barely 200-day-old administration.
“If anything, maybe that statement wasn’t tough enough,” Trump said of his blistering message to the defiant Stalinist state a day earlier.
“The people of our country are safe. Our allies are safe,” Trump told reporters at his Bedminster golf resort in New Jersey. “And I will tell you this: North Korea better get their act together, or they’re going to be in trouble like few nations ever have been in trouble in this world, OK?”
A day after North Korea announced it would study a possible missile strike on the U.S. territory of Guam, a Pacific Ocean island that is home to large American military installations, Trump warned of catastrophic retaliation.
“Let’s see what he does with Guam,” Trump told reporters. “He does something in Guam, it will be an event the likes of which nobody’s seen before, what will happen in North Korea.”
Trump was then asked whether that statement constituted a dare to Kim Jong Un.
“It’s not a dare. It’s a statement. It has nothing to do with dare,” Trump responded. “That’s a statement. He’s not going to go around threatening Guam and he’s not going to threaten the United States and he’s not going to threaten Japan and he’s not going to threaten South Korea.”
The president attended a briefing on the standoff with Vice President Mike Pence, national security adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster, CIA Director Mike Pompeo and White House chief of staff John Kelly.
Asked what would be tougher than “fire and fury,” Trump cryptically replied, “You’ll see, you’ll see.” But he declined to be drawn into discussing whether he was considering what he considers to be preventive military action.
“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,” he said.
“The people of this country should be very comfortable,” with the way his administration has responded, Trump said. “And I will tell you this: If North Korea does anything in terms of even thinking about an attack of anybody that we love or we represent or our allies or us, they can be very, very nervous.”
At the same time, Trump played down optimism about the impact of a brand-new U.N. Security Council package of punishing sanctions, which his administration spurred to unanimous 15-0 approval.
“Probably, it will not be as effective as a lot of people think it can be, unfortunately,” Trump said.
After Trump’s remarks on Tuesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis sought to calm global disquiet with the message that the United States had no plans for an unprovoked attack on North Korea and still sought a diplomatic solution — while not ruling out military options.
Speaking to reporters as he traveled to Seattle on Thursday, Mattis warned that “it is North Korea’s choice” how the situation unfolds.
“What we’re doing is a diplomatically-led effort that is succeeding in drawing the international community together and speaking with one voice. You just saw it. That’s where we’re at,” Mattis said. “Do I have military options? Of course I do. That’s my responsibility, to have those.”
The latest crisis stemming from North Korea’s nuclear weapons program erupted on Tuesday with news that U.S. intelligence officials believed the regime had developed a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can fit atop one of its intercontinental ballistic missiles. The Washington Post was the first to report that development.
Trump’s warning on Tuesday raised eyebrows because he seemed to threaten military action in response to “threats” from North Korea. While his predecessors Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have all warned Pyongyang that America would respond with overwhelming force to any nuclear attack, the president’s remarks seemed to suggest a red line against the kinds of threats North Korea makes on a routine — if inflammatory — basis.
Pyongyang responded by dubbing Trump’s remarks “nonsense” and declaring that it would consider a strike near Guam.
Shortly after Trump’s remarks, Mattis seemed to recalibrate the administration’s position to reflect that actions, not words, would trigger the U.S. response.
North Korea “should cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people,” the retired Marine general said. “The DPRK regime’s actions will continue to be grossly overmatched by ours and would lose any arms race or conflict it initiates.”
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