A day after President Donald Trump threatened North Korea with “fire and fury,” his top diplomat and defense chief sent a more nuanced message Wednesday, reinforcing the capacity of the United States to win any war while reassuring Americans that they did not think it would come to that.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, returning from a trip to Asia, said he saw no reason to believe that war was imminent despite the heated exchange of warnings between Trump and Pyongyang, emphasizing instead the possibility of a diplomatic solution to the standoff over North Korea’s efforts to build long-range nuclear weapons.
“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 on the way back to the United States to refuel in Guam, the very island that North Korea threatened to target with an attack. He added: “Nothing I have seen and nothing I know of would indicate that the situation has dramatically changed in the last 24 hours.”
Hours later, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis issued a written statement that, while not as colorful as Trump’s comments on Tuesday, repeated the suggestion that North Korea risked “the end of its regime and the destruction of its people” if it did not “stand down” from its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
“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. Using the initials for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, he added: “The DPRK regime’s actions will continue to be grossly overmatched by ours and would lose any arms race or conflict it initiates.”
The two secretaries made their comments a day after Trump warned of “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” choosing language that neither had seen in advance. The stark words, evoking the horror of a nuclear exchange between the world’s most dominant superpower and the upstart outlaw nation, sent ripples throughout the United States and Asia.
Tillerson and Mattis were left with the task of ratcheting down some of the heat of the moment without undercutting the president. In the process, each emphasized different elements.
In speaking with reporters traveling with him, Tillerson said that the threats emanating in recent days from the North Korean government have come as a result of growing international condemnation and sanctions.
“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.
Tillerson continued: “I think the president just wanted to be clear to the North Korean regime that the U.S. has unquestionable ability to defend itself, will defend itself and its allies, and I think it was important that he deliver that message to avoid any miscalculation on their part.”
North Korea’s ballistic missile program has advanced remarkably during the Trump administration, with the regime testing two intercontinental ballistic missiles in recent weeks, prompting experts to warn that the nation now may have a missile capable of reaching the United States.
The Washington Post reported Tuesday that U.S. intelligence agencies had concluded that North Korea had miniaturized a warhead that could fit on top of one of its missiles. The Japanese government also said in an annual threat assessment Tuesday that “it is possible that North Korea has already achieved the miniaturization of nuclear weapons and has acquired nuclear warheads.”
But experts said the main problem for North Korea is not miniaturization; the bombs are already judged small enough to fit on a ballistic missile, as a famous picture of Kim with an odd warhead resembling a disco ball seemed to make clear. The real test is whether a warhead can survive the intense heat of re-entry as it plunges through the atmosphere from space, a hurdle North Korea is not believed to have overcome.
Trump weighed in on Twitter on Wednesday morning, promoting the strength of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, even though he has previously called it obsolete. The president said because of steps he has taken during his administration, the arsenal is now “far stronger and more powerful than ever before.”
In fact, the modernization of the nuclear arsenal began under President Barack Obama and while Trump has pledged to overhaul the nation’s collection of bombers, submarines and land-based missiles, no substantial changes have been made since he took office. Trump faces a decision on whether to continue the 30-year program initiated by Obama even as cost estimates have grown by an additional 20 percent, bringing the price tag to $1.2 trillion, according to an estimate by the Congressional Budget Office.
The White House’s proposed budget called for big increases in research and development for new weapons, but it does not yet grapple with the ultimate budget-busting cost of producing a new fleet of delivery vehicles.
At the urging of the Trump administration, the United Nations Security Council unanimously approved new sanctions against North Korea on 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.
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 poses a threat to global security and stability. The DPRK must choose to stop isolating itself and stand down its pursuit of nuclear weapons.”
The Trump administration has sent mixed signals about whether it would entertain direct talks with the North Korean government, with Vice President Mike Pence saying 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 refused to say.
Tillerson emphasized that he is engaged in an ongoing diplomatic effort and that “our telephone lines remain open, certainly to China, Russia as well as our allies.”
Tillerson’s remarks came as he flew home from four days of talks in Asia, including meetings with his counterparts from Russia, China, South Korea and Japan at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, in Manila, Philippines this year as well as talks in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur.
The growing menace from North Korea was Tillerson’s top priority, although he also discussed China’s increasingly aggressive actions in the South China Sea as well as what the United States perceives as the growing threat of the Islamic State group in Asia.
Tillerson said that his strategy of gradually increasing diplomatic and economic pressure on the North Korean government is 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.”
But he added that “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,” he said.
The way out for the North Koreans?
“Talks,” Tillerson said. “Talks with the right expectation of what those talks will be about.”