WASHINGTON — So much for North Korea’s restraint. So much for President Donald Trump’s threats of “fire and fury.”
After Pyongyang’s highly provocative missile test over close American ally Japan, Trump offered a surprisingly subdued response Tuesday, pulling back from his administration’s recent suggestions of a dialogue with the communist country but also avoiding a repeat of his bombastic warnings earlier this month of a potential military confrontation.
Instead, Trump’s terse, written statement reiterating that all U.S. options are being considered pointed to an administration cautiously searching for an effective policy, even as the North’s test risked endangering Japanese civilians. Washington and its allies called an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting for later Tuesday, but looked short on new ideas for stopping the nuclear and missile advances that are increasingly putting the U.S. mainland within range.
“Threatening and destabilizing actions only increase the North Korean regime’s isolation in the region and among all nations of the world,” Trump said after the North’s missile soared almost 1,700 miles (2,700 kilometres) into the Pacific Ocean, triggering alert warnings in northern Japan and shudders throughout Northeast Asia. “All options are on the table.”
The tone was far more moderate than Trump’s colorful language earlier this month, when he spoke of unleashing “fire, fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before” if North Korea kept threatening the U.S. There were no indications Trump had any imminent intention to make good on his threat to strike North Korea.
But such has been the speed of the Trump administration’s zigs and zags on North Korea policy. If Tuesday’s statement seemed unusually restrained for Trump, it actually marked a toughening of his administration’s most recent tone.
A senior U.S. official said the restrained nature of the administration’s recent responses was intentional, reflecting an effort by new White House chief of staff John Kelly to prevent a repeat of the rhetorical escalation that occurred earlier this month. But with Trump’s focus diverted to flood-ravaged Texas, it was unclear whether he might ultimately speak or tweet about the launch in greater detail.
Three weeks ago, when North Korea responded to Trump’s “fire and fury” warning by threatening to launch multiple missiles near the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam, Trump tweeted that an American military solution to the standoff was “locked and loaded.” Experts warned that the rapid-fire escalation had raised the danger of a miscalculation among the nuclear-armed powers.
The administration’s more cautious approach in recent days reflects an effort to preserve modest signs of progress with North Korea that had led Trump and his top diplomat to hint at the possibility of direct talks, said the official, who wasn’t authorized to discuss the deliberations publicly and requested anonymity.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is “starting to respect us,” Trump said at a campaign rally in Phoenix last week, adding that “maybe, probably not, but maybe something positive can come about.” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson credited Kim’s government with demonstrating “some level of restraint that we have not seen” by not conducting a missile test for almost a month, expressing hope it might be the “signal that we have been looking for,” leading to a dialogue.
Even that suggestion was a surprising one for the Trump administration. On his first trip to Asia, Tillerson said North Korea must first abandon its “weapons of mass destruction” for talks to occur. But he later floated the idea that the North merely had to halt its nuclear and missile tests. The North has completely rejected both demands, saying negotiations hinge on the U.S. dropping its “hostile policy.”
In any case, the optimism generated by North Korea’s temporary lull in missile activity ended last Friday, when it fired three short-range projectiles into the sea. It then raised the ante three days later by firing directly over Japan’s territory, breaking with its usual practice of launching over open seas where there’s no risk that a misfire would land in another country or send debris falling on populated areas.
The Pentagon said it was an intermediate-range missile that landed 500 nautical miles east of Japan.
But for Trump’s earlier bombast, his Tuesday statement wouldn’t have been particularly surprising. Democrat and Republican presidents have routinely offered the “all options on the table” terminology, even though a pre-emptive U.S. military strike is highly unlikely.
North Korea has the world’s largest standing army and a massive conventional weapons arsenal that can easily target the capital of South Korea and its metropolitan area of about 25 million people. American officials have long assessed that mass casualties would likely result.
But while U.S. officials had been inclined to overlook Friday’s launches, the launch early Tuesday in North Korea was harder to ignore.
Friday’s rocket tests represented a typical North Korean response to annual, U.S.-South Korean military drills that Pyongyang claims are rehearsals for invasion. This year’s war games started last week and end Thursday.
Tuesday’s launch was altogether more provocative. It was only the third time North Korea has fired a missile over Japan. The previous occasions in 1998 and 2009 used rockets purportedly for space exploration. This time, the North unambiguously tested a ballistic missile designed for military strikes and believed capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.
Within minutes, cellphones alerted residents on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, and loud alarms and emails instructed them to stay indoors. Speakers broadcast an alert saying “missile is passing, missile is passing.”
Trump and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan conferred by telephone, agreeing that North Korea poses “a grave and growing direct threat,” the White House said. They vowed to increase pressure on the North.
“Japan’s and the U.S. positions are totally at one,” Abe added in a statement, saying Trump expressed his “strong commitment” to defend Japan.
During a closed-door Security Council session later Tuesday, Nikki Haley, Trump’s U.N. envoy, was hoping veto-wielding members China and Russia would co-operate. But Haley didn’t specify what action the U.S. its allies sought.
“No country should have missiles flying over them like those 130 million people in Japan. It’s unacceptable,” Haley told reporters. She added: “Something serious has to happen.”