WASHINGTON — President Trump said Thursday that he would prefer not going to war with North Korea over that country’s escalating nuclear and missile programs, but he warned that “certainly that could happen.”
“Military action would certainly be an option,” Trump told reporters during a joint question and answer session at the White House with Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah. “Is it inevitable? Nothing is inevitable. It would be great if something else could be worked out.”
The president noted that his predecessors had achieved little by “talking, talking, talking” and cutting deals with North Korea.
“I would prefer not going the route of the military, but it’s something certainly that could happen,” Trump said. “If we do use it on North Korea it will be a very sad day for North Korea.”
While successive presidents of both parties have declared that they want the complete and verifiable denuclearization of North Korea, Trump did not rule out a scenario in which Washington could live with a nuclear-armed regime in Pyongyang, deterred from action by the prospect of nuclear annihilation by U.S. forces.
Asked by a reporter whether he could accept that outcome, Trump replied: “I’m not negotiating with you. Maybe we’ll be able to have a chance to negotiate with somebody else. But I don’t put my negotiations on the table.”
Trump’s remarks came a day after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats briefed members of the Senate and House of Representatives behind closed doors on the escalating crisis.
The pressure on the president increased over the past week after North Korea claimed to have successfully tested a hydrogen bomb in what would be its most powerful nuclear blast to date. U.S. officials, who have not disputed the assertion, are bracing for another provocative act by the North — a missile launch, for example — when the country celebrates its founding on Saturday.
Sources say that Trump recently received an updated package of detailed options — diplomatic, economic and military — for confronting North Korea and inducing its primary patron, China, to tighten the economic vise on the regime in Pyongyang. Some lawmakers have stepped up calls for American sanctions on Chinese entities, like banks, that do business with North Korea.
U.S. officials say that they expect the Trump administration to ramp up the pressure over the coming weeks and months. But military action — seen as a last resort — would risk triggering retaliation by North Korea, which has South Korea’s capital, Seoul, within range of its artillery and could reach targets in Japan with rockets. Former senior Trump strategist Steve Bannon said in a recent interview after leaving the White House that the prospect of a death toll in the tens of millions made waging preventive war unthinkable.
“There’s no military solution [to North Korea’s nuclear threats], forget it,” Bannon told the American Prospect. “Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that 10 million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no military solution here, they got us.”
In an early test of peaceful options, the United States is pushing the United Nations Security Council to impose an oil embargo on North Korea, further restrict its exports of textiles, curb the hiring of North Korean workers abroad and freeze North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s assets and ability to travel overseas. Impoverished North Korea’s centrally planned economy depends on China for most of its trade and energy supplies and earns foreign currency through limited exports and the wages of its citizens laboring abroad.
Trump aides say sanctions alone are unlikely to get North Korea to abandon its weapons programs, which the regime sees as guarantors of its survival.
Since taking office, Trump and senior officials have stepped up the rhetoric aimed at the North. In the past month alone, Trump has threatened to unleash “fire and fury” on the regime and warned that the U.S. military is “locked and loaded.” This week, his ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said North Korea was “begging for war.”
At the same time, Tillerson and Mattis have also said that Washington’s goal is not regime change in Pyongyang.
Tensions have steadily escalated since July, when North Korea fired two intercontinental ballistic missiles — tests that showed its rockets could reach U.S. soil, according to U.S. intelligence officials. The United States responded by rallying an unusual 15-0 United Nations Security Council vote in favor of a package of tough new economic sanctions on the regime. In early August, news outlets reported that American intelligence confirmed a finding by Japan’s defense ministry that North Korea has likely developed warheads small enough to fit on its missiles.
There are still many questions about Pyongyang’s capabilities — how reliable are its guidance systems? Has it devised reentry systems to ensure that its warheads would not burn up in the atmosphere?
In his appearance on Thursday, Trump sent a blunt message to Kim: “North Korea is behaving badly, and it’s got to stop.”
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