Thursday 24 August 2017

Trump team softens war talk but vows other pressure on North Korea

All options, including a military strike, are on the table

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un watches a military drill marking the 85th anniversary of the establishment of the Korean People's Army (KPA). Picture: KCNA/Handout via REUTERS
North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un watches a military drill marking the 85th anniversary of the establishment of the Korean People's Army (KPA). Picture: KCNA/Handout via REUTERS

Matthew Pennington and Vivian Salama

The Trump administration has said it will apply economic and diplomatic pressure on North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons programme, as an extraordinary White House briefing served to tamp down talk of military action against an unpredictable and increasingly dangerous US adversary.

President Donald Trump welcomed Republican and Democratic senators before his secretary of state, defence secretary, top general and national intelligence director conducted a classified briefing.

The same team was also meeting with House members in the Capitol to outline the North's escalating nuclear capabilities and US response options to what they called an "urgent national security threat".

After weeks of unusually blunt military threats, the joint statement by the agency chiefs said Mr Trump's approach "aims to pressure North Korea into dismantling its nuclear, ballistic missile and proliferation programs by tightening economic sanctions and pursuing diplomatic measures with our allies and regional partners". It made no specific mention of military options, though it said the US would defend itself and friends.

The unprecedented meeting in a building adjacent to the White House reflected the increased American alarm over North Korea's progress in developing a nuclear-tipped missile that could strike the US mainland. A flurry of military activity, by North Korea and the US and its partners on and around the divided Korean Peninsula, has added to the world's sense of alert.

While tensions have increased since Mr Trump took office, they have escalated dramatically in recent weeks as American and other intelligence agencies suggested the North was readying for a possible nuclear test. Although such an explosion has not yet occurred, Mr Trump has sent high-powered US military vessels and an aircraft carrier to the region in a show of force, while the North conducted large-scale, live-fire artillery drills, witnessed by national leader Kim Jong Un, earlier this week.

On Wednesday, South Korea started installing key parts of a contentious US missile defence system that also has sparked Chinese and Russian concerns.

America's Pacific forces commander, Admiral Harry Harris Jr told Congress on Wednesday the system would be operational within days. He said any North Korean missile fired at US forces would be destroyed.

"If it flies, it will die," Admiral Harris said.

The Trump administration has said all options, including a military strike, are on the table. But the administration's statement after briefing senators - all 100 members were invited - outlined a similar approach to the Obama administration's focus on pressuring Pyongyang to return to long-stalled denuclearisation talks.

Mr Trump's top national security advisers said they were "open to negotiations" with the North, though they gave no indication of when or under what circumstances.

The strategy hinges greatly on the cooperation of China, North Korea's main trading partner.

"China is the key to this," said Senator John McCain, who got a preview of Mr Trump's message at a dinner with the president this week.

Among the options are returning North Korea to the US state sponsor of terrorism blacklist, which Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said last week was under consideration. His spokesman, Mark Toner, said on Wednesday that another tactic is getting nations around the world to close down North Korean embassies and consulates, or suspending them from international organizations.

But sanctions will be the greatest tool at the Trump administration's disposal. Mr Tillerson is chairing a UN Security Council meeting on Friday designed to get nations to enforce existing penalties on North Korea and weigh new ones.

Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee, Admiral Harris said he expects North Korea to soon be able to develop a long-range missile capable of striking the United States, as Mr Kim has promised. "One of these days soon, he will succeed," Harris said.

North Korea's UN mission said on Wednesday the nation would react to "a total war" with Washington by using nuclear weapons. It vowed victory in a "death-defying struggle against the US imperialists".

Press Association

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