President Trump issued yet more provocative warnings of military action against North Korea on Friday as he continued to suggest that he was ready to strike the small, isolated Asian country that has been developing nuclear weapons capable of reaching the United States.
Even as he kept up the drumbeat against Pyongyang, Mr. Trump suggested that he was also contemplating the use of armed force closer to home, in Venezuela, where the government has moved to close down the opposition parliament after a fraud-plagued referendum while the country spirals deeper into poverty and dysfunction.
Asked about the crisis there, Mr. Trump volunteered the possibility of military force even though there has been no tangible threat to the United States.
“Venezuela is not very far away and the people are suffering and they’re dying,” Mr. Trump told reporters at his golf club in nearby Bedminster, N.J., after meeting with members of his national security team. “We have many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option if necessary.”
After twice earlier in the day escalating his rhetoric against North Korea, Mr. Trump emerged from the late afternoon session with a somewhat more restrained message, vowing to give diplomacy a chance. He said he would be calling President Xi Jinping of China later Friday evening to coordinate strategy. “Hopefully it’ll all work out,” he said. “Nobody loves a peaceful solution better than President Trump, that I can tell you. Hopefully it’ll all work out, but this has been going on for many years.”
I’m concerned that Donald’s mind might be clouded here by (among other things) a fixation on having drawn his own “red line” by means of…
“I think the president’s made it clear he prefers a diplomatic solution,” Mr. Tillerson said, standing next to Mr. Trump. “What the president’s doing is to support our efforts by making sure North Korea understands the stakes.”
Mr. Trump started the morning with a Twitter message saying the American military was “locked and loaded” for conflict, and then followed up in the afternoon by telling reporters in the first of two media appearances that he hoped the North Koreans “fully understand the gravity of what I said.” He singled out Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, saying that Mr. Kim has gotten away with destabilizing the region for too long.
“This man will not get away with what he’s doing,” the president told reporters before the late afternoon meeting with Mr. Tillerson, Nikki Haley, the ambassador to the United Nations, and Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser. “If he utters one threat in the form of an overt threat” or takes action against the United States territory of Guam or against America’s allies, “he will truly regret it and he will regret it fast.”
Mr. Trump dismissed foreign leaders, lawmakers and national security experts who have called his threats rash and even reckless. “My critics are only saying that because it’s me,” Mr. Trump said. “If somebody uttered the exact same words that I uttered, they’d say, ‘What a great statement, what a wonderful statement.’”
Military solutions are now fully in place,locked and loaded,should North Korea act unwisely. Hopefully Kim Jong Un will find another path!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 11, 2017
Mr. Trump’s morning tweet said that “military solutions” were ready “should North Korea act unwisely.” To reinforce the point, the president later shared a post from the United States Pacific Command stating that it was standing by for orders should the need arise. “#USAF B-1B Lancer #bombers on Guam stand ready to fulfill USFK’s #FightTonight mission if called upon to do so,” the original tweet said.
As a practical matter, Mr. Trump’s comments do not necessarily indicate a specific change in military readiness or any imminent action. The motto of American forces based alongside allied troops in South Korea has long been “Ready to Fight Tonight,” mainly a slogan emphasizing preparedness rather than a statement of hostility. There has been little if any sign of mobilization that might suggest preparations for a strike.
Even without nuclear weapons, North Korea has an array of conventional artillery that analysts said could lay waste to Seoul and other parts of South Korea if war were to start, yet no move has been made to begin evacuating the many thousands of American civilians living there.
Mr. Trump has spent at least part of his week playing golf and held a meeting today on work force development. Mr. Tillerson spent Wednesday in Honolulu, where he brought along his clubs, as well. Vice President Mike Pence was in Indianapolis on Friday talking about anti-crime efforts.
The Trump administration has repeatedly said its diplomatic initiative to pressure North Korea into abandoning its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program is still in its early phases, with much work remaining to be done. Mr. Tillerson has repeatedly said that the United States was open to talks if North Korea stopped the series of missile tests that have rattled the region in recent weeks.
Most importantly, the Trump administration hopes to persuade China to use its considerable influence over North Korea’s economy and political leadership to resolve the situation for the United States, but analysts say that nothing of the sort is likely to happen, at the earliest, until this fall’s Party Congress is completed. Indeed, all of China’s leadership is at the beach this weekend, so getting calls returned in Beijing is difficult.
In addition to his planned phone call with Mr. Xi, Mr. Trump also rearranged his schedule to return to Washington on Monday for the day, a brief break in his 17-day escape from the White House. Aides said he would hold meetings on trade and national security, but it was not clear what might come from them. Mr. Trump said he would hold a news conference afterward.
As before, Mr. Trump’s Friday morning statement did not make clear what would constitute an action that would require an American military operation — would the United States take action only in retaliation for an attack by North Korea, or would it strike to stop further development of nuclear weapons?
Last month for the first time, North Korea successfully tested intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the continental United States, and analysts have said it may be able to miniaturize warheads that could fit on such missiles.
Still, even if it has, North Korea faces additional hurdles before it would be able to launch a nuclear attack on the United States, among them ensuring that a warhead could survive the ravages of re-entry through the atmosphere. But the progress it has made has unnerved much of Asia, prompting a new set of sanctions by the United Nations Security Council.
Mr. Trump this week vowed to rain “fire and fury like the world has never seen” down on North Korea if it threatened the United States. After critics in both parties called that sort of language excessive and reckless, Mr. Trump doubled down on Thursday by saying that “if anything, maybe that statement wasn’t tough enough.”
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, asked Thursday about the American military’s readiness for action, said: “I don’t tell the enemy in advance what I’m going to do. Our readiness, we are ready.”
The strident language emerging from New Jersey has set much of the world on edge.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of Australia said his country would support the United States if the ally was attacked by North Korea. In a statement released after a meeting with the defense officials and policy experts on the situation in the Korean Peninsula, Mr. Turnbull denounced North Korea’s “illegal, reckless, provocative conduct,” which he said threatened stability in the region and “put the world at risk.”
“We stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States,” Mr. Turnbull, who spoke with Mr. Pence this week, said in the statement. The three-way mutual security treaty with the United States and New Zealand “means that if America is attacked, we will come to their aid,” he added. “If Australia is attacked, the Americans will come to our aid. We are joined at the hip.”
New Zealand, on the other hand, would not commit. Prime Minister Bill English told local news outlet NZN that he was focusing on peace, but if there was military action against North Korea, his country would “consider our contribution on its merits.” Foreign Minister Gerry Brownlee told reporters: “Committing to an aggressive response now — while encouraging all involved to avoid escalation — is not a position we want to take.”
If Mr. Trump was hoping his sharp warnings would provoke a response from China, he chose an odd moment. Chinese leaders, including Mr. Xi , are largely focused on domestic politics. Top officials have gathered at Beidaihe, a seaside retreat more than 170 miles east of Beijing, to map out a once-every-five-years leadership reshuffle of the ruling Communist Party that is to take place this fall.
The Foreign Ministry is on summer break from its daily news conferences and posted a written statement on Friday with a typical plea for restraint and dialogue.
China hopes that all parties would “speak and act with caution and do more things that are conducive to de-escalating the tense situation and enhancing mutual trust among parties, rather than relapse into the old path of showing assertiveness and escalating tensions,” the statement said.
The state-run news media has largely avoided mentions of North Korea or Mr. Trump, in keeping with the party’s habit of burying distressing news to maintain calm. The top story on Friday in People’s Daily, the party’s flagship newspaper, showcased Shanghai’s efforts to turn industrial areas into gardens and parks. There was no talk of Mr. Trump or Mr. Kim.
Still, Mr. Trump’s words provoked reaction from some corners. Global Times, a stridently nationalistic state-run tabloid, published an editorial calling on Chinese leaders to make clear that they would not stand behind North Korea if it waged an attack against the United States and the Americans retaliated, but would stand against unprovoked American aggression.
“China should also make clear that if North Korea launches missiles that threaten U.S. soil first and the U.S. retaliates, China will stay neutral,” the editorial said. “If the U.S. and South Korea carry out strikes and try to overthrow the North Korean regime and change the political pattern of the Korean Peninsula, China will prevent them from doing so.”
Global Times often takes an acerbic tone in its editorials, and its words do not necessarily reflect the views of China’s leaders.
Patrick M. Cronin, a senior adviser at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, said the editorial seemed to be signaling to North Korea to “cool it.” At the same time, he said, it was sending a message to the United States that it should not use force, “but if it were to use force, it should deal with China before doing so.”
Bonnie S. Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Chinese leaders would probably conclude at the meeting in Beidaihe that “both Washington and Pyongyang are dangerous and unpredictable.”
“It’s unlikely that Xi will seek support from his colleagues for greater cooperation with an unpredictable U.S. president,” she said.
Even with Chinese leaders focused on domestic affairs, analysts said that Beijing’s role in resolving the current crisis might be limited. “It’s unclear Beijing would have much of a role right now beyond their usual platitudes calling on all parties to exercise restraint,” said Ely Ratner, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Neither Washington or Pyongyang is interested in the diplomatic solution Beijing has put on the table.”