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Trump: 'We'll see' if a North Korean nuclear test would trigger U.S. response

President Trump is warning North Korea not to conduct another nuclear test, saying “we’ll see” if such a step would trigger a U.S. military response.

Trump, in an interview aired Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” also said he believes China’s President Xi Jinping, with whom he met weeks ago in Florida, has been using Beijing’s leverage to restrain North Korea’s mercurial leader, Kim Jong Un.

In the interview, Trump said neither he nor Xi would be happy if Kim were to conduct a nuclear test, which would be North Korea’s sixth. There were some expectations earlier this month that the hermit kingdom might conduct such a test in connection with patriotic holiday observances.

The test did not take place, but North Korea has continued with other actions the U.S. and its regional allies regard as provocations, including a failed test on Saturday of a mid-range ballistic missile. Kim’s government is known to be working to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking the United States.

Asked in the CBS interview if a North Korea nuclear test would prompt U.S. military action, Trump replied: “I don’t know. I mean, we’ll see.”

Trump appeared to offer grudging praise for Kim, noting that he took over North Korea when he was 26 or 27 after his father died and has consolidated power despite challenges from the military and members of his family. 

"A lot of people, I'm sure, tried to take that power away, whether it was his uncle or anybody else," he said.  "And he was able to do it. So obviously, he's a pretty smart cookie."

In 2013, North Korea’s official news service reported that Jang Song Taek, Kim’s uncle by marriage, was executed for attempting to seize power. The report called Jang “worse than a dog.”

In a separate interview on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was asked if Trump was considering a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, especially if there were indications that it had developed a delivery system capable of carrying a nuclear weapon. “I don’t think so,”  he said.

“I think we have to consider that option as the very last option,” said McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee. He cited an array of dangers associated with any outbreak of hostilities on the Korean peninsula, including North Korea’s ability to strike Seoul with conventional artillery.

“The major lever on North Korea, maybe the only lever, is China,” he said.

Amid rising tensions with North Korea, the Trump administration has been sending mixed signals about its dealings with South Korea, long a bedrock regional ally.

Trump rattled many in South Korea last week when he said in at least two interviews that Seoul should pay $1 billion for a sophisticated missile defense system that the U.S. and South Korea have begun installing. The Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense system, or THAAD, is intended to become operational within a matter of days.

South Korea’s presidential office said Sunday that Trump’s national security advisor, H.R. McMaster, had offered reassurances that Washington would not try to make Seoul bear the cost. In an interview aired Sunday, McMaster confirmed that was the case — for now.

“What I told our South Korean counterpart is that until any re-negotiation, that the deal’s in place, we’ll adhere to our word,” McMaster said on “Fox News Sunday.”

Senior Trump administration officials are often put in the position of walking back Trump’s comments, including many on foreign affairs, without seeming to directly contradict the president.

In this instance, McMaster sought to put Trump’s comments in the context of looking at “appropriate burden-sharing” across all U.S. alliances.

“The question of what is the relationship on THAAD, on our defense relationship going forward, will be renegotiated, as it’s going to be with all our allies,” McMaster said. “Because what the president has said is, he will prioritize American citizens’ security and interests.”

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