WASHINGTON — With crossed arms and a cold stare, Donald Trump uttered the most threatening words of his presidency on Tuesday, warning of a strike of unprecedented “fire,” “fury,” and “power” against North Korea in an escalating, nuclear-themed standoff.
He delivered that warning after reports that North Korea had crossed a key threshold in becoming a full-fledged nuclear power, with an alleged new ability to mount a miniaturized nuclear warhead atop a long-range missile.
A reporter asked the president about this development during an unrelated meeting about the opioid crisis at the golf club where Trump is enjoying a 17-day holiday. Trump stared at the assembled cameras and raised the stakes.
“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen,” Trump said.
“(North Korea’s leader) has been very threatening beyond a normal statement and, as I said, they will be met with fire, fury and, frankly, power the likes of which this world has never seen before.”
Those words came as a jolt.
Even the stock market appeared to freeze after a days-long rally, with a dip Tuesday afternoon. A deluge of social-media commentary followed. People parsed the president’s words to gauge their level of seriousness.
Some noticed Trump had been casually repeating a similar turn of phrase all day. Of opioid deaths, he said: “It’s a problem the likes of which we have never seen.” On his southern border plan, Trump said: “The likes of which this country certainly has never seen.”
He then applied the same language to a nuclear confrontation.
A North Korean defector and journalist predicted some of these developments several weeks ago in an email exchange with The Canadian Press. Writing through a translator, North Korea-raised Seoul journalist Joo Sung-ha said the regime was very close to gaining nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Next it will use them as a bargaining chip, he predicted.
“It will seek to negotiate directly with the U.S.,” wrote the journalist, now with South Korea’s Dong-a Ilbo newspaper, predicting the demands it will make: “The goal of the regime is to receive a guarantee from the U.S. of full security of the regime’s own survival, a peace treaty and a large economic support package.”
He said the North Korean regime would want tens of billions of dollars in economic aid — otherwise it could escalate the risk in two ways: threatening neighbours like South Korea and seeking to sell the technology to other hostile actors.
Some national-security experts urged calm.
Tom Nichols, a professor at the Naval War College, said North Korea was a threat to its neighbours, but was likely still far from having a workable, intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting the U.S.: “Stop hyperventilating. Please,” he tweeted.
John Noonan, a former nuclear-launch officer and adviser to Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush, said the president’s language might actually prove useful as a deterrent: “Tough talk on North Korea might appal Ivy League, Bordeaux sippers. But this is the language much of the world speaks. And it is effective.
“Wars don’t start because of inflammatory rhetoric. They start when aggressors believe the cost of violence is affordable.
But aides to the last U.S. president expressed concern.
A national-security aide to Barack Obama, Tommy Vietor, said: ”The president of the United States shouldn’t sound like Kim Jong-un. It antagonizes everyone while accomplishing nothing.”
A senior adviser to Obama, Dan Pfeiffer, tweeted: “Don’t gloss over the fact that Trump threatened what can only be interpreted as a nuclear attack on North Korea if Kim Jong-un taunts him.”
The development arose after a Japanese defence paper and U.S. media reports said North Korea had crossed the nuclear Rubicon. “It is possible that North Korea has achieved the miniaturization of nuclear weapons and has developed nuclear warheads,” Japan’s Defence Ministry concluded in an annual white paper released Tuesday.
U.S. media including The Washington Post reported that U.S. intelligence officials assess that a decade after North Korea’s first nuclear test explosion, Pyongyang has produced nuclear weapons for ballistic missile delivery, including by intercontinental missiles — the type capable of reaching the continental U.S.
The UN Security Council this weekend slapped its toughest sanctions yet on North Korea over its latest test of a ballistic missile that could be used to deliver a nuclear weapon. Despite the rapid tempo of these tests, uncertainty has lingered over the isolated nation’s ability to couple such a missile with a nuclear device.
The Post story, citing unnamed U.S. intelligence officials, said the confidential analysis was completed last month by the U.S. Defence Intelligence Agency.