Trump Doubles Down on Pyongyang Warning

Trump Doubles Down on Pyongyang Warning
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President Trump rejected criticism that his threat of “fire and fury” against North Korea this week baited an enemy closer to war, describing his statements as “maybe not tough enough.”

Speaking to reporters outside his New Jersey golf club Thursday, and again after concluding a national security briefing, the president said the United States was willing to “consider negotiations” with North Korea, but was fed up with Pyongyang’s behavior and ready to defend the United States and its allies in the Korean Peninsula.

“The people of our country are safe. Our allies are safe. 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?” the president said in a continuing volley of boasts and colloquial shorthand.

Trump declined to be more specific about any potential use of force or reliance on alternatives to military action, but said he continued to believe China could intervene with Pyongyang. “I think China can do a lot more,” he said.

Trump assailed Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama for spending the better part of nearly three decades in hands-on and hands-off efforts to try to halt or slow Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions. His administration’s approach, he said, was to confront the results: North Korea has reportedly produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead that could fit atop a missile, and it has threatened the United States and its neighbors with destruction while conducting missile tests.

If North Korea attacks Guam, as its military threatened on Wednesday to consider doing this month, the United States will retaliate, Trump said. “That is a statement of fact,” he added.

“Let’s see what he does with Guam,” the president continued, referring to 33-year-old dictator Kim Jong Un. “He does something in Guam, it will be an event the likes of which nobody’s seen before, [is] what will happen in North Korea.” 

Experts have underscored the president’s dilemma in vowing to protect the U.S. territory in the Western Pacific, which is home to 163,000 people: Would the United States pre-emptively strike North Korea to deter an attack? If the United States waits to deploy anti-missile defenses to destroy North Korean missiles, how will the Pentagon know whether nuclear warheads are deployed, and what are the odds of miscalculations? And what kind of collateral damage would the United States or its allies sustain in any such scenario?

The president hailed United Nations-backed economic sanctions against North Korea approved Aug. 6. The punishing rebuke from the world community included support from North Korea’s valued trading partners, China and Russia. Trump’s rhetoric Thursday was aimed at China in addition to Pyongyang, and the president repeated his entreaty to Beijing to crack down on its neighbor in exchange for favorable trade terms from the United States. 

“I don’t like to signal what I’m going to be doing,” Trump said after meeting with National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Vice President Pence and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly. “We are preparing for many different alternative events.”

Trump sought to present a resolute front to the world, but his statements opened doors to new questions. He praised the U.N. sanctions, but said he was skeptical they would change North Korea’s behavior. He said China was likely to act to pressure the regime, but offered no evidence that Beijing was motivated to intervene.

This week’s tough messaging from Trump about “fire and fury” was in large measure directed at China, said Gordon Chang, author of the book “Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World,” published in 2006 when Kim’s father, Kim Jong Ill, ruled the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The president repeatedly says he will not permit a nuclear North Korea to threaten the United States, and he wants China to see the hazards and end its “foot dragging,” Chang told RealClearPolitics.

“Every option going forward is dangerous,” the author and columnist added. “The American people are in peril, and there are no real good solutions going forward.”

The president dismissed complaints that he, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson failed to harmonize U.S. messaging this week. But in the next sentence, he conceded, “to be honest, General Mattis may have taken it a step beyond what I said.”

On Thursday en route to Seattle, Mattis tried again to summarize the U.S. posture. “Of course there's a military option,” he told reporters. “We want to use diplomacy. That's where we've been, that's where we are right now and that's where we hope to remain. But at the same time, our defenses are robust.”

The president announced he had changed his mind about asking Congress to cut spending for missile defenses as part of the Pentagon’s fiscal 2018 budget submission.

“We’re going to be increasing our budget by many billions of dollars because of North Korea and other reasons,” he said, noting the details would emerge “over the next week,” while lawmakers are out of Washington for the August break.

Trump also addressed the contrast between the U.S. goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula while at the same time threatening North Korea with nuclear annihilation of the regime.

“I’d like to de-nuke the world,” the president told reporters. “I would like Russia, the United States and China and Pakistan and many other countries that have nuclear weapons to get rid of them. But until such time that they do, we will be the most powerful nuclear nation on earth, by far.”

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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