President Trump capped a week of charged rhetoric aimed at North Korea on Friday with a more precise threat of force, tweeting, "military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely."
He added: "Hopefully Kim Jong Un will find another path!"
For a second day, Trump followed up his provocative posts on Twitter with more expansive comments to reporters monitoring his working vacation from his New Jersey golf club. He dismissed the potential for back-channel negotiations and reiterated his calls to North Korean leader Kim to halt his threats to the U.S. and its allies.
“If he utters one threat in the form of an overt threat,” Trump told reporters, “if he does anything with respect to Guam, or anyplace else that’s an American territory or an American ally, he will truly regret it and he will regret it fast.”
The ambiguous phrase “overt threat” suggested that the president was trying to set a higher bar for retaliation than he had earlier in the week, when he simply said any threat could trigger action.
Trump’s comments throughout the week — improvised without the review from national security aides that such delicate matters usually get — have alarmed many allies and members of the foreign policy community, who have expressed increasing concern that the president is inflaming a volatile situation with an unpredictable, nuclear-armed foe.
The heightened tension prompted Guam, the U.S. territory in the Pacific that has been the subject of North Korean threats, to post emergency guidelines offering specific advice in the event of a nuclear missile attack, including an admonition against using hair conditioner “because it will bind radioactive material to your hair.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a stalwart ally who has clashed with Trump repeatedly, said Germany would stand by America in a war but warned that there was no military solution and that fiery talk would be foolish. “I consider an escalation of rhetoric the wrong answer,” she said.
Trump, asked about her comments later, said Merkel spoke for Germany, “perhaps” — not the United States.
China, North Korea’s most important ally, tried to cool the situation. Its state-owned newspaper, Global Times, which often reflects the Chinese government’s official policy, gave notice to North Korea in an editorial that Beijing would remain neutral if Pyongyang attacked first, and told Washington that it would intervene should the United States preemptively strike.
"The uncertainty in the Korean Peninsula is growing,” the newspaper wrote. “Beijing is not able to persuade Washington or Pyongyang to back down at this time. It needs to make clear its stance to all sides and make them understand that when their actions jeopardize China's interests, China will respond with a firm hand.”
Trump has not been deterred by concerns about his rhetoric from governments and foreign policy analysts.
"My critics are only saying it because it's me," he said, asserting that tens of millions of Americans are pleased that he is standing up to Kim’s regime and that any other American leader would have been praised by establishment voices for using such forceful language.
He appears to be pursuing a good cop/bad cop approach, hoping his threats, contrasted with more conciliatory words from his Cabinet, will cow Kim. So far, the language has only met with increasingly heated words from Pyongyang, including the threat to Guam.
Trump has appeared restless during his break in New Jersey, tweeting often and holding impromptu sessions with reporters, while spending long stretches outside the public eye. In addition to the "locked and loaded" tweet, Trump also retweeted one from the U.S. Pacific Command with pictures of fighter jets and the statement that "Lancer #bombers on Guam stand ready.”
Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, arrived in Honolulu on Friday amid the standoff on a previously planned visit with leaders of the Pacific Command, which oversees operations in the Asia-Pacific region. Dunford will also meet with foreign leaders during the trip.
Despite Trump’s “locked and loaded” tweet, the Pentagon has not announced any major deployments of troops or movements of ships to the Korean peninsula. But officials say that the U.S. military stands by its motto to be ready to “fight tonight” against North Korean aggression.
No aircraft carriers are patrolling off the North Korean coast. The Ronald Reagan and Carl Vinson carriers, which conducted naval exercises in June with Japanese forces in the Sea of Japan in a rare show of power, are in now docked in their home ports.
"We always maintain a high state of readiness and have the capabilities to counter any threat, to include those from North Korea,” Lt. Col. Christopher B. Logan, a Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement.
U.S. and South Korean forces are preparing for annual air, land, and sea exercises involving 17,500 U.S. service members later this month. The regular exercises, dubbed Ulchi-Freedom Guardian, have been scheduled for Aug. 21-31, but elevate the chance of miscalculation.
“If miscalculation occurs, we will then be caught in a crisis without an effective means of direct communication between the two sides,” said Scott Snyder, director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“The outcome and consequences of such a crisis could be great and could have long-lasting unpredictable effects on the regional security order.”
U.S. allies, meanwhile, are making preparations against North Korea’s threats to fire four Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missiles toward Guam.
Japanese government officials told reporters the military intended to position its two-tiered missile defense systems as needed to protect against a potential North Korean attack.
“We will consider various factors and take the necessary measures," said Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera, according to the Nikkei Asian Review, an English-language newspaper in Japan.
Several veterans of the region say Trump is pushing the issue to the brink before he has to, damaging important lines of communication in the meantime given that North Korea’s capacity to deliver long-range nuclear missiles is still not fully established, and could be months or years away.
“It’s not a Cuban missile crisis. It’s not something where you have a short, urgent need to act,” said Anthony H. Cordesman, a national security veteran who has served in several administrations, beginning with President Kennedy’s.
Cordesman worries that Trump “has now set the equivalent of a red line in the minds of virtually everyone who is listening to him.”
R. Nicholas Burns, a Harvard professor who has held several high-ranking State Department positions, said Trump should beef up the U.S. military presence in the region and consider imposing even harsher “secondary sanctions” against those who do business with the Pyongyang regime. Then Trump should get off Twitter, quit making improvised statements, and allow Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to lead with a more consistent message, Burns added.
“They may not understand Donald Trump’s psychology,” he said of the North Koreans. “You don’t want your adversary in the nuclear age to be confused by what you’re trying to say.”