NEW YORK — President Trump escalated his war of words with North Korea on Thursday by declaring that his provocative threat to rain down “fire and fury” might not have been harsh enough, as nuclear tensions between the two nations continued to crackle.
Rejecting critics at home and abroad who condemned his earlier warning as reckless saber-rattling, Trump said North Korea and its volatile leader, Kim Jong Un, have pushed the United States and the rest of the world for too long.
“Frankly, the people who were questioning that statement, was it too tough? Maybe it wasn’t tough enough,” he told reporters. “They’ve been doing this to our country for a long time, for many years, and it’s about time that somebody stuck up for the people of this country and for the people of other countries. So if anything, maybe that statement wasn’t tough enough.”
Trump noted that North Korea, which has made significant progress toward developing long-range nuclear weapons, responded to his original warning by threatening to launch a missile strike toward the Pacific island of Guam, a US territory and strategic base. “If he does something in Guam, it will be an event the likes of which nobody has seen before, what will happen in North Korea,” he said.
Asked if that was a dare, Trump said: “It’s not a dare. It’s a statement. Has nothing to do with dare. That’s a statement. He’s not going to go around threatening Guam and he’s not going to threaten the United States and he’s not going to threaten Japan, and he’s not going to threaten South Korea. No, that’s not a dare, as you say. That is a statement of fact.”
Trump made his latest comments on North Korea during a pair of televised media events. He spoke at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., where he is spending much of the month on a working vacation. He met on Thursday with Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, his national security adviser, and other aides. While his advisers have tried to modulate his original comment, made Tuesday in response to North Korean threats, Trump suggested he had no reason to back off.
Asked what would be tougher than fire and fury, he said, “Well, you’ll see, you’ll see.”
He declined to explicitly say he was considering a pre-emptive military strike: “We don’t talk about that. I never do.”
He added, “But I can tell you that what they’ve been doing and what they’ve been getting away with is a tragedy. And it can’t be allowed.”
Trump’s war of words has has alarmed allies in the region. North Korea has reacted with threats of its own, warning that it might launch a missile strike toward the Pacific island of Guam, which is a US territory and home to a strategic US base, as early as this month, and adding that it was capable of starting a nuclear war that might reach the continental United States.
North Korea recently tested intercontinental ballistic missiles for the first time and has been reported to be making progress toward equipping them with nuclear warheads.
On Thursday, North Korea vowed to ignite an “enveloping fire” of test missiles near Guam, with precise details like splashdown points and exact travel times for four test missiles.
North Korea said the missile launches were still in the planning phase and would not be finalized until later this month, raising the possibility of delay or cancellation.
The four Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missiles to be aimed toward the vicinity of Guam would fly 2,085.7 miles in 17 minutes, 45 seconds, North Korea said in announcing the plan. The missiles would splash down 18.6 to 24.8 miles from Guam’s coast, the North said.
“By revealing this detailed plan, North Korea is trying to show that its Hwasong-12 missile is a reliable system and that it has capabilities of operating nuclear missiles,” said Shin Beom-chul, a security expert at government-run Korea National Diplomatic Academy in Seoul.
Even though North Korea has conducted 80 missile tests under Kim, it has never before launched a missile toward a target as far as Guam and has never disclosed such precise flight data in advance.
The missile test plans might seem like a reckless response to Trump’s warning that he would unleash “fire and fury” on the North if it continued threatening the United States. But South Korean analysts said the plans reflected a calculated strategy by Kim: At home the North Korean leader must rally his impoverished people by showing off his daring in the standoff with the United States.
For all the bellicose words, Trump said Thursday that he was open to negotiations, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged North Korea to engage in talks. But the president expressed skepticism that they would lead to a reasonable outcome, given the experiences of his predecessors, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, none of whom was able to resolve the issue.
“Sure, we’ll always consider negotiations,” Trump said. “But they’ve been negotiating now for 25 years.’’
Trump’s comments defied critics at home and abroad who have said his choice of words was needlessly bombastic and potentially reckless.
“These statements are irresponsible and dangerous and also senselessly provide a boon to domestic North Korean propaganda which has long sought to portray the United States as a threat to their people,” more than 60 House Democrats said in a letter Thursday addressed to Tillerson, asking him to restrain the president.
“President Trump’s escalatory rhetoric is exactly the wrong response to dealing with North Korea’s provocative behavior,” said Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee’s East Asia Subcommittee. “It unnecessarily heightens the risk of miscalculation and creates the very fog that can lead to war.”