BRIDGEWATER, New Jersey—Senior US officials sent mixed signals on North Korea on Wednesday, as President Donald J. Trump’s “fire and fury” warning rattled allies and adversaries alike, a sign of his administration’s deep divisions as the outcast state once again threatened to wage nuclear war on the US.
The president’s advisers calibrated his dire warning with statements that, if not directly contradictory, emphasized different points.
Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson stressed diplomacy and reassured Americans that they could “sleep well at night,” while Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said North Korea risked “the end of its regime and the destruction of its people” if it did not “stand down.”
North Korea gave no indication that it would do so. In a statement late on Wednesday, the North Korean military dismissed Trump’s fire-and-fury warning on Tuesday as a “load of nonsense” and said only “absolute force” would work on someone so “bereft of reason.”
The military threatened to “turn the US mainland into the theater of a nuclear war” and added that any US strike on North Korean missile, and nuclears targets would be “mercilessly repelled”.
The statement also said that the North Korean military would finalize a plan by mid-August to fire four midrange missiles into the waters off the Pacific island of Guam, a US territory used as a strategic base, to create a “historic enveloping fire.”
The spiral of fighting words left the Trump administration debating how to handle a standoff that has defied three presidents and grown only more ominous in recent weeks as North Korea successfully tested intercontinental ballistic missiles for the first time.
Neither Tillerson nor Mattis had reviewed in advance Trump’s threat on Tuesday, when he said North Korea “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
And the dissonance in their own follow-up statements reflected the struggle inside the Trump administration.
“I don’t think there is a single policy at work,” said Ellen L. Frost, a longtime Asia specialist at the East-West Center, a Honolulu-based research organization. “I’m not even sure that Trump cares about having a consistent policy on any subject.”
Instead, she added, the president’s fire-and-fury threat was a play to show toughness to his political base “followed by more nuanced cleanup operations on the part of Tillerson and Mattis, who are walking a political tightrope.”
Trump remained out of public sight on Wednesday at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, where he is spending most of a 17-day working vacation. But he posted a link on Twitter to a news report on his threat, and followed up by boasting that he had ordered the modernization of America’s nuclear arsenal.
“Hopefully we will never have to use this power,” he wrote, “but there will never be a time that we are not the most powerful nation in the world!”
US allies in Japan and South Korea were caught off guard by Trump’s threat, as were other regional players like China and Russia. Analysts reported deep anxiety over the prospect that a war of words could easily turn into a real one. But some discounted Trump’s comments as the sort of bombast they have become accustomed to from a president who has publicly assailed not just enemies, but even allies, like Germany, Canada and Mexico. The difference is that Germany is unlikely to respond to a presidential tirade with an attack on Guam, as North Korea threatened after Trump’s warning.
Tillerson took on the role of soother, telling reporters as he returned from a trip to Asia that he saw no reason to believe that war was imminent. He urged North Korea to engage in talks about its nuclear program.
“I think Americans should sleep well at night, have no concerns about this particular rhetoric of the last few days,” Tillerson said as his plane stopped to refuel in Guam, the very island that North Korea threatened to target.
He added, “Nothing I have seen and nothing I know of would indicate that the situation has dramatically changed in the last 24 hours.”
Tillerson said Trump simply chose the sort of attention-grabbing words that the North Korean leader would use.
“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. Hours later, Mattis issued a written statement that, while not as florid as Trump’s comments on Tuesday, still held out the possibility of a strong retaliation that could destroy much of North Korea.
“While our State Department is making every effort to resolve this global threat through diplomatic means, it must be noted that the combined allied militaries now possess the most precise, rehearsed and robust defensive and offensive capabilities on Earth,” Mattis said.
North Korea’s military, he added, “will continue to be grossly overmatched by ours and would lose any arms race or conflict it initiates.”
At the urging of the Trump administration, the UN Security Council unanimously approved new sanctions against North Korea last Saturday. But even as China and Russia supported the measure, it was unclear how hard they would work to enforce it.
Some saw Trump’s message as aimed at providing an incentive to Beijing to do more to avoid war, although it also risked disrupting the very alignment he had been trying to forge.
Mattis, in his statement, stressed the international solidarity against North Korea: “Kim Jong Un should take heed of the United Nations Security Council’s unified voice and statements from governments the world over, who agree the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] poses a threat to global security and stability. The DPRK must choose to stop isolating itself and stand down its pursuit of nuclear weapons.”
While the State Department insisted that the administration was speaking with “one voice,” analysts said that voice was not necessarily a consistent one.
“Clearly there is not a coordinated messaging strategy,” Evan Medeiros, the managing director at the Eurasia Group and a former Asia adviser to President Barack Obama, said by telephone from Tokyo. “This is being put together incrementally, and of all the countries and all the issues you deal with, North Korea is not the one to be kludging together statements by the president and Cabinet secretaries because the risk of miscalculation is so high.”
Alexander Vershbow, a former ambassador to South Korea, said that the Trump administration “policy seems incoherent” and that the threat of military action “will likely harden the North Koreans’ stance” and make it more difficult to get China to follow through on its support for the UN sanctions.
“If denuclearization is still the goal, the only way to get there is through increased Chinese pressure,” Vershbow said. “Since there is no viable military option, the only other course of action is to develop a long-term deterrence and containment strategy—but that means accepting the unacceptable,” North Korea as a nuclear power.
That, so far, is one thing Trump has made clear he would not accept. His administration has sent conflicting signals about whether it would entertain direct talks with the North Korean government.
Vice President Mike Pence has said no such talks are being considered, while Tillerson has said they could happen as long as the North Koreans demonstrate their sincerity by pausing their missile tests. How long such a pause needs to last, he has refused to say.
Tillerson emphasized on Wednesday that he was engaged in a continuing diplomatic effort and that “our telephone lines remain open, certainly to China, Russia as well as our allies.”
Tillerson said that his strategy of gradually increasing the diplomatic and economic costs for the North Korean government was working.
“I think in fact the pressure is starting to show,” he said. “I think that’s why the rhetoric coming out of Pyongyang has gotten louder and more threatening.”
Medeiros questioned whether Trump’s warning, combined with sanctions, would prompt North Korea to return to the negotiating table.
“That’s the big strategy question here,” he said. “Trump has clearly calculated that it will. But that’s a huge gamble, and it’s one that it’s not clear to me that the Chinese would necessarily agree with.”