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In Dealing With North Korea's Missiles, Do Trump and Mattis Agree?


FILE - Secretary of Defense James Mattis, right, escorts U.S. President Donald Trump as he greets military personnel at the Pentagon, July 20, 2017.

The U.S. president and his defense secretary issued divergent comments on Wednesday about how to respond to North Korea’s advancing ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis emphasized the United States is “never out of diplomatic solutions” when it comes to dealing with North Korea. That comment was made after U.S. President Donald Trump said that "talking is not the answer."

Mattis was responding to a question about Trump’s tweet Wednesday morning on dealing with the threat of North Korea following its most recent ballistic missile test, in which a projectile flew high over Japan.

A missile is launched during a long and medium-range ballistic rocket launch drill in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency in Pyongyang on Aug. 30, 2017.
A missile is launched during a long and medium-range ballistic rocket launch drill in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency in Pyongyang on Aug. 30, 2017.



“The U.S. has been talking to North Korea, and paying them extortion money, for 25 years. Talking is not the answer!” Trump tweeted, a day after he said that "all options are on the table" for dealing with Pyongyang.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, asked to reconcile what seemed to be a contradiction between the Trump and Mattis comments, told reporters aboard Air Force One on Wednesday that the president has previously said all options are on the table for dealing with North Korea, “and that continues to be the case,”

Asked if the president was referring to the possibility of a military option, Sanders said she replied that “if he was looking at that direction he would be leaning heavily on people like General Mattis, [senior members of] the Department of Defense and others.”

Some analysts criticized the divergence of the messages coming from Trump and his defense secretary.

“Aside from the fact that President Trump needs to get his facts straight -- talking has worked at times and not at others -- his administration needs to get its policies straight,” Joel Wit, senior fellow at the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins University, told VOA.

The Trump administration’s “constant stream of contradictory statements is only confusing our allies and undermining our ability to effectively deal with this growing threat,” said Wit, who coordinated a U.S. deal with North Korea to freeze its nuclear program in the mid-1990s.

An arms control specialist who worked in the Clinton and Obama administrations, Gary Samore, said, “Trump is correct that our efforts to negotiate agreements with North Korea to resolve the problem, to end the North Korea nuclear program, haven’t worked.”

Samore, of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, deems it “unlikely in the future that a diplomatic agreement” would lead to North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons.

Samore, however, agreed with Wit that “there is a danger of mixed messaging because the U.S. government, I believe, is trying to find a way back to the bargaining table.”

The problem, Samore told VOA, is not so much with Trump’s tweets but “that [North Korean leader] Kim Jong Un is not interested in having a negotiation right now.”

North Korea said launched its intermediate-range ballistic missile high over Japan Tuesday to counter this week's joint military exercises by South Korea and the United States.

The U.S. has military treaties with both Japan and South Korea to help protect them.

For the second day in a row,, Trump discussed the matter by telephone with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

In their Wednesday conversation, which lasted for more than 30 minutes, the two leaders “confirmed their continuing, close cooperation on efforts to address” North Korea's recent missile test, according to a White House statement.

Abe, in Tokyo, told reporters that Trump and other leaders he has spoken with “totally agree pressure ((on North Korea)) must be raised by the international community.”

U.S. Disarmament Ambassador Robert Wood, in Geneva, called for “concerted action” in response to the “increasing threat” caused by North Korea’s missile program, calling it the greatest current “challenge to the global security environment.”

North Korea’s state news agency quoted leader Kim Jong Un as saying the drill for Tuesday’s launch of the Hwasong-12 missile was “like a real war,” and “a meaningful prelude to containing Guam," a U.S. territory nearly 3,000 kilometers southeast of the Korean peninsula and home to American air and naval bases.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy announced its sailors successfully shot down a medium-range ballistic missile off the coast of Hawaii on Wednesday in a test of American defense systems.

“We will continue developing ballistic missile defense technologies to stay ahead of the threat as it evolves,” said Lieutenant General Sam Greaves, director of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency.

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