World & Nation

Were Trump’s fiery threats against North Korea reckless or calculated?

North Koreans rally in support of their government’s stance against the United States at Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang on Aug. 9, 2017.
(AFP / Getty Images)

President Trump’s chilling threat to unleash “fire and fury like the world has never seen” against North Korea sent shock waves across the Pacific, but the administration argued Wednesday that it was carefully crafted for a special audience of one: Kim Jong Un.

By reminding North Korea’s young ruler in crude terms of America’s vastly larger nuclear arsenal, Trump appeared to be playing a diplomatic good-cop, bad-cop routine with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has repeatedly called for finding a way to resume negotiations with the government in Pyongyang.

“What the president is doing is sending a strong message to North Korea in language that Kim Jong Un would understand because he doesn’t seem to understand diplomatic language,” Tillerson said en route to Guam after a diplomatic swing through Southeast Asia. “I think it was important that he deliver that message to avoid any miscalculation on their part.”

Less clear is whether it was an intentional strategy or an improvised gambit by an administration struggling to find its footing in an international crisis. The White House confirmed that Trump had ad-libbed his grim warning Tuesday, but insisted he did so only after consulting with his national security advisors.


“The words were his own,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, told reporters near the president’s golf resort in Bedminster, N.J., where he is on a working vacation. “The tone and strength of the message were discussed beforehand.”

“We are all on the same page,” agreed Heather Nauert, the State Department spokeswoman. “We are speaking with one voice. And the world is speaking with one voice.”

It was easier to hear a cacophony of voices Wednesday from the Trump team and from around the world, however, a jarring mix of messages that did little to ease tensions.

Speaking to reporters, Tillerson called for calm, saying that America does not face “any imminent threat, in my own view” and that “Americans should sleep well at night.”


Hours later, Defense Secretary James N. Mattis spoke of America’s military might and warned Pyongyang to “cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people.”

Pyongyang initially responded by saying it was considering a missile strike against U.S. military bases on the Pacific island of Guam. But on Wednesday, the Korean People’s Army broadened its aim, threatening to “turn the U.S. mainland into the theater of a nuclear war.”

Pyongyang also organized a giant rally, complete with propaganda posters and waving fists, to showcase the country’s military fervor. Tens of thousands of people packed Kim Il Sung Square in downtown Pyongyang to protest the latest round of United Nations sanctions.

The reaction in Northeast Asia to the escalating war of words ranged from expressions of alarm by U.S. allies to calls for restraint from China, which has been Pyongyang’s closest political and economic ally since the Korean War in the 1950s.

A commentary on the state-run New China News Agency on Wednesday warned all sides “not to play with fire.”

It called for “making responsible choices to ensure peace, particularly at a moment approaching crisis,” saying it’s not too late to ease tensions and return to the negotiating table.

“Pyongyang should suspend its ballistic missile and nuclear programs while Washington and Seoul suspend their joint military drills,” the commentary said.

South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, called for a “rebirth” of the nation’s military to build up the country’s defenses. Japan, which also is within range of North Korean missiles, also is considering a sharp military expansion.


Six-party multilateral talks with North Korea to curtail its nuclear program broke off in 2009. Since 2006, North Korea has conducted five underground nuclear tests, including two last year, and built an estimated arsenal of at least 20 nuclear arms.

Pyongyang also successfully tested a long-range missile last month deemed capable of reaching California and beyond. U.S. intelligence agencies assess that Pyongyang can build a nuclear warhead small enough to fit atop its missiles, but cannot yet build one robust enough to survive the missile’s reentry into the atmosphere.

Except for the bellicose talk, the Trump administration appears to be largely following the Obama administration playbook on North Korea: marshaling diplomatic, economic and military forces to persuade Pyongyang to freeze its nuclear and missile programs before they pose an unacceptable direct threat to the United States.

The administration’s only visible success so far came at the U.N., when the 15 members of the Security Council voted unanimously Saturday to add a new round of sanctions to punish North Korea for its nuclear and missile programs.

The U.N. resolution barred North Korea from exporting coal and other raw materials that are crucial to its economy. The ban is expected to cost the country more than $1 billion, about a third its total exports last year.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley called the resolution “the single largest economic sanctions package ever leveled against the North Korean regime” and “the most stringent set of sanctions on any country in a generation.”

Whether it will persuade Kim’s government to dial back its offensive arms programs, or at least the nuclear and missile tests, is far from clear. Previous sanctions have done little to slow the country’s rush to build a credible nuclear deterrent and strike force.

Chinese and Russian officials have spent the last 48 hours insisting to their North Korean counterparts that Pyongyang comply with the sanctions, Tillerson said.


Speaking to reporters on the flight to Guam, Tillerson also said he was confident he was able to galvanize support against North Korea during his just-concluded visit to Southeast Asia.

He attended an annual regional security conference in the Philippines, became the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Thailand since a 2014 military coup and met Malaysian leaders in Kuala Lumpur.

North Korean companies and diplomats use Thailand and Malaysia to procure goods and technology, and U.S. officials want to stop the trade.

“I think, in fact, the pressure is starting to show,” Tillerson said. “I think that’s why the rhetoric coming out of Pyongyang has gotten louder and more threatening. Whether we’ve got them backed into a corner or not is difficult to say, but diplomatically, you never like to have someone in a corner without a way for them to get out.”

“Talks,” Tillerson said when asked whether North Korea had a way out. “Talks, with the right expectation of what those talks will be about.”

Wilkinson reported from Washington and Kaiman from Beijing. Times staff writers W.J. Hennigan in Washington and Barbara Demick in New York contributed to this report.

For more on international affairs, follow @TracyKWilkinson on Twitter

Twitter: @JRKaiman

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