Updated at 6:11 p.m. | The Trump White House on Sunday quickly and aggressively escalated its tense standoff with North Korea, warning Kim Jong Un that the United States has the ability to enact “total annihilation” of the Hermit Kingdom.
After huddling with President Donald Trump at the White House, Defense Secretary James Mattis emerged with a hawkish statement hours after the North conducted another nuclear test. Mattis, a retired Marine Corps four-star general, said Trump wanted to briefed on the “many military options” the Pentagon has to address the North Korea situation.
“We made clear that we have the ability to defend ourselves and our allies, South Korea and Japan, from any attack,” Mattis said of the U.S. military. “And our commitment among the allies is ironclad: Any threat to the United States or its territories, including Guam, or our allies will be met with a massive military response, a response both effective and overwhelming.
“Kim Jong Un should take heed of the United Nations Security Council’s unified voice — all members unanimously agreed on the threat North Korea poses and they remain unanimous on their commitment to the de-nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” he said, then concluding the prepared statement with what sounded like a threat of an armed conflict unless Kim changes his behavior in a major way.
“Because we are not looking to the total annihilation of a country, namely North Korea,’ Mattis said, flanked by Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford. “As I said, we have many options to do so.”
Mattis and Dunford then turned and headed back into the West Wing, ignoring shouted questions about whether U.S. officials believe the North has a functional nuclear warhead and whether war is now inevitable.
A few hours later, the White House put the use of America’s nuclear arsenal front-and-center.
During a call with his Japanese counterpart, Trump “reaffirmed the commitment of the United States to defending our homeland, territories, and allies using the full range of diplomatic, conventional, and nuclear capabilities at our disposal,” the White House said in a statement.
Hours before convening the emergency session of his national security team, Trump would not rule out attacking North Korea after the Kim regime conducted another nuclear test.
“We’ll see,” Trump responded when asked if he plans to attack the nuclear-armed North by a CQ Roll Call reporter who was part of Sunday’s press pool. He and First Lady Melania Trump were leaving St. John’s Church near the White House when Trump decided to again flex his muscles vis-à-vis Pyongyang.
The comment came a few hours before Trump will chair a meeting on North Korea with several senior national security officials — and after he fired off several tweets suggesting “appeasement” with the North’s young leader won’t help solve the threat of his long-range missiles and nuclear weapons.
The morning’s most hawkish tweets came with the implied rhythm of war drums from the U.S. commander in chief — or the threat of them. Trump tweeted that South Korean leaders are finding, “as I have told them, that their talk of appeasement with North Korea will not work.”
Trump added that Kim and his top lieutenants “only understand one thing!”
South Korea is finding, as I have told them, that their talk of appeasement with North Korea will not work, they only understand one thing!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 3, 2017
After the church service and his refusal to rule out a preemptive attack, Trump announced on Twitter that his plans to meet later Sunday with Mattis, chief of staff John Kelly (also a retired Marine Corps general), and “other military officials.” Earlier in the day, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders issued a statement on the nuclear test saying Trump would meet with “his national security team.”
I will be meeting General Kelly, General Mattis and other military leaders at the White House to discuss North Korea. Thank you.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 3, 2017
Sanders had yet to respond to a query seeking clarification on whether the intelligence community, State Department and other national security agencies will also participate in Trump’s North Korea meeting.
‘Hostile and dangerous’
Earlier Sunday, the president tweeted that North Korea’s “words and actions continue to be very hostile and dangerous to the United States.”
He called the Kim regime “rogue” and “a great threat,” also labeling Pyongyang an “embarrassment” to China.
In the day’s first swipe at Chinese President Xi Jinping, Trump tweeted that Beijing has had “little success” in changing the North’s behavior. China is North Korea’s lone remaining close ally.
North Korea has conducted a major Nuclear Test. Their words and actions continue to be very hostile and dangerous to the United States.....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 3, 2017
..North Korea is a rogue nation which has become a great threat and embarrassment to China, which is trying to help but with little success.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 3, 2017
Trump sent a second strong message to Xi after arriving back at the White House from the church service, which came a few days after he declared Sunday a “national day of prayer” for the victims of Hurricane Harvey.
The president tweeted his administration is considering, “in addition to other options, stopping all trade with any country doing business with North Korea.”
The United States is considering, in addition to other options, stopping all trade with any country doing business with North Korea.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 3, 2017
A significant threat
That threat is significant because China is the North’s leading trade partner, both as a customer for its goods and a supplier of items it needs. But China and the U.S. have extensive trade ties, meaning Trump’s threat also would hit the American economy hard — and, therefore, the entire global economy.
Lawmakers reacted to the test and Trump’s hawkish rhetoric after by preaching caution.
One of Trump’s top Republican Capitol Hill critics, Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, noted that economic sanctions put in place on the North by the Obama and Trump administrations have not altered the Kim regime’s behavior.
“But I don’t think that harsh rhetoric does either,” Flake, a Foreign Relations Committee member, told CNN on Sunday.
Asked if he agrees with former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s comments that Trump is unqualified and ill-suited to make decisions about a potential nuclear war, Flake acknowledged he has “had my concerns,” but opted instead to focus on the president’s national security team.
“I do have good confidence in our national security team and those who are advising the president. And the president does not have experience in this ... kind of situation, but few presidents do when they come into office,” Flake said. “And I’m confident that the people around the president are giving him good advice, and I believe that he will follow it. I sure hope he does.
“Obviously, you like a leader that’s measured and sober and consistent. Our allies want to hear that,” he said. “I think our adversaries need to hear that.”
Another member of that panel, Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., called the nuclear test and other recent actions by the North a “serious escalation.” He urged Trump to take several steps — but none included the option the president did not rule out outside the Washington church.
“I urge President Trump to consult closely with Congress, to rely on his national security and diplomatic team and to continue working with the UN and China to increase pressure on North Korea through tougher sanctions, while also strengthening our defensive anti-missile capabilities,” Coons said in a statement.
“It is urgent that we speed up deployment and development of systems that can defend our homeland and our vital allies South Korea and Japan,” he said. “We must make every effort at diplomacy while also preparing for the strong possibility of escalating confrontation.”