U.S. Presses North Korea but Dials Back Rhetoric

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from The Wall Street Journal,

President’s Twitter comments follow North Korea’s threat that it was considering firing missiles at Guam.

The Trump administration on Wednesday sought to keep pressure on North Korea to curb its nuclear ambitions, while also moving to lessen the alarm President Donald Trump sparked a day earlier when he threatened Pyongyang with attack.

North Korea on Thursday morning local time said “sound dialogue is not possible” with Mr. Trump and repeated the threat it made a day earlier to fire at the U.S.’s Pacific territory of Guam, saying it could surround Guam in “enveloping fire” by launching four intermediate-range Hwasong-12 missiles at the island. Pyongyang said the missiles would land about 20 miles offshore and could be launched as soon as mid-August.

In a series of statements, U.S. administration officials took a step back from Mr. Trump’s threat to hit North Korea with “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” but stood by a warning of serious retaliation should North Korean leader Kim Jong Un strike the U.S. or its allies.

Mr. Trump touted the strength of the American nuclear arsenal in a message Wednesday morning on Twitter from his resort in Bedminster, N.J., but he tempered his rhetoric from the previous day.

“Hopefully we will never have to use this power,” Mr. Trump wrote, “but there will never be a time that we are not the most powerful nation in the world!”

The White House also said Mr. Trump was using his own words when he made the “fire and fury” remarks on Tuesday, but press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the president discussed the “tone and strength” of the message beforehand with advisers including White House Chief of Staff John Kelly.

Mr. Tillerson on Wednesday also looked to defuse the tension, stating that Mr. Trump’s “fire and fury” comment didn’t indicate the U.S. was moving toward a preemptive military attack on North Korea’s rapidly advancing nuclear weapons and missile program.

The secretary of state instead championed the diplomatic effort to pressure North Korea into disarmament talks.

North Korea has conducted five nuclear tests since 2006. What has worried U.S. officials most in recent months, though, is the rapid progression of the country’s program to field intercontinental ballistic missiles—long-range weapons that would allow North Korea to rocket warheads through the atmosphere to hit the continental U.S.

North Korea conducted its first ICBM test on July 4 and followed up with a second ICBM test on July 28 that experts said put the continental U.S. firmly in range of a strike.

Mr. Tillerson said the president’s provocative message on Tuesday came in response to threatening statements Mr. Kim’s government made after the United Nations Security Council hit Pyongyang with new sanctions as punishment for its aggressive testing program.

“What the president is doing is sending a strong message to North Korea in language that Kim Jong Un would understand, because he doesn’t seem to understand diplomatic language,” Mr. Tillerson said.

The top diplomat’s efforts to dial down the rhetoric left it to Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis to keep up the pressure by reaffirming his confidence that the American military would prevail over Mr. Kim’s regime in the event of any attack on the U.S.

Mr. Mattis warned North Korea that it is “grossly overmatched” by the U.S. and its allies and “would lose any arms race or conflict it initiates.”

North Korea, Mr. Mattis said, needs to “stand down in in its pursuit of nuclear weapons” and “cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people.”

North Korea, meanwhile, stepped up its rhetoric on Thursday morning.

“The U.S. president at a [golf] links again let out a load of nonsense about ‘fire and fury,’ failing to grasp the on-going grave situation,” the official statement said, making a reference to Mr. Trump’s warning against North Korea from the clubhouse of his golf​course on Tuesday. “This is extremely getting on the nerves of the infuriated Hwasong artillerymen.”

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