WASHINGTON - U.S. President Donald Trump has renewed threats to take "care of" the North Korean nuclear threat amid expectations of a new nuclear test this weekend, prompting a defiant response Friday from a senior official in Pyongyang.
“If the U.S. comes with reckless military maneuvers then we will confront it with the DPRK’s pre-emptive strike,” said
North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Han Song Ryol, referring to North Korea by its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
“We've got a powerful nuclear deterrent already in our hands, and we certainly will not keep our arms crossed in the face of a U.S. pre-emptive strike,” Han said in an exclusive interview with the Associated Press.
A day earlier, Trump had responded emphatically to reports that North Korea is poised to detonate an underground nuclear device as early as Saturday to mark the anniversary of the birth of the nation's founder, Kim Il Sung.
“North Korea is a problem,” Trump said at the White House. “The problem will be taken care of.”
Han, in the interview Friday, blamed Trump for raising tensions on the Korean peninsula, saying that his “aggressive” tweets were “making trouble.” He said the situation is now in a “vicious cycle” of escalating tensions.
China urges talks
While Trump’s remark was taken as a threat of military action against the North, Trump added that China “is working very hard” to defuse the international tension over North Korea, and that he is hopeful Beijing’s diplomacy will be effective.
In a separate comment earlier Thursday, however, Trump said the United States is prepared to tackle the North Korean crisis without China, if necessary.
An American aircraft carrier and other warships are steaming toward the Korean Peninsula in a show of force this week, although there has been no specific U.S. threat of retaliatory action if Pyongyang conducts another nuclear test or launches more missiles in defiance of U.N. sanctions.
At the Pentagon, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis said Washington is “working with international partners in order to defuse the situation, but the bottom line is, North Korea has got to change its behavior.”
China: ‘Military force’ won’t work
China’s public comment about North Korea Thursday was terse: “Military force cannot resolve the issue,” Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters in Beijing. “Amid tensions, we will also find a kind of opportunity to return to talks.”
China is North Korea’s sole major ally, but it opposes Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program, along with all other neighbor states. Beijing has called for multiparty talks leading to a peaceful resolution that would denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.
The state-backed Chinese newspaper Global Times said the best course for North Korea would be to give up its nuclear program, and it promised that Beijing will protect the North if that happens.
“As soon as North Korea complies with China’s declared advice and suspends nuclear activities ... China will actively work to protect the security of a denuclearized North Korean nation and regime,” Global Times said in an editorial.
Chinese experts, including two academics, see little immediate possibility of hostilities, but say Beijing will respond harshly to any North Korean nuclear tests.
“Although the tension in the Korean Peninsula is pretty high, it’s not high to the point of having an imminent war,’’ Gui Rui, Director of Jilin University’s Institute of Northeast Asian Studies, told The Associated Press.
Another nuclear test would invite tougher measures from Beijing, possibly including new restrictions on Chinese companies’ investments in North Korea and cuts in the number of Chinese tourists allowed to visit, Gui said.
Pang Zhongying of the School of International Studies at Beijing’s Renmin University agreed that military action was unlikely, but said another North Korean nuclear test would mark “the crossing of a red line” that China was prepared to respond to.
“I have no idea what exact measures China will make this time, but one thing is for sure that they will be much tougher than those we’ve seen in the past,” Pang said.
Weapons test may be imminent
Amid the rhetoric from all sides Thursday, no information has emerged to challenge the news reports from earlier this week: North Korea appears to have placed a device in a tunnel at its nuclear test site that could be detonated Saturday or even sooner. VOA’s report, quoting U.S. government and other sources with that story Wednesday, was updated Thursday by a source within the U.S. intelligence community: “U.S. intelligence is always on the alert for a possible North Korean weapons test. Kim Jong Un wants his country to be validated as a nuclear power, and a test would further that goal.”
Scores of foreign journalists are in Pyongyang this week for North Korea’s biggest national holiday, the “Day of the Sun” Saturday, marking the 105th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s founder and the grandfather of the current ruler.
Five years ago, the late Kim Il Sung’s centenary was marked by a failed attempt to launch a North Korean space satellite, and last year Pyongyang tested a newly developed intermediate range missile — also a failure.
Satellite photographs this week have shown continuing activity around the North’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site, which could be taken to indicate another underground nuclear test is imminent.
Fewer options for U.S.
Although South Korean and American troops are preparing for a round of joint military exercises — a regular event that Pyongyang has denounced as preparations for an invasion that would justify a massive counterattack — a spokesman for the South Korean joint chiefs of staff said Thursday that Seoul has seen no indications any military action by the North is imminent.
CIA Director Mike Pompeo told a security forum in Washington that North Korea’s military development has progressed to a point where Pyongyang is now closer than ever to being able to threaten the United States with a nuclear tipped intercontinental missile. That, in turn, has reduced U.S. defense officials’ options about how to respond to the North Korean threat, Pompeo added during remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
He indicated that a worst-case scenario would force the U.S. to take action against the North, and that would be “a tough day for the leader of North Korea.”
Discussion this week about possible U.S. military action against the North has referred to the cruise missile strike against a Syrian airbase that Trump ordered last week, and the mammoth single bomb airstrike an American warplane carried out Thursday against an Islamic State bunker complex in northeastern Afghanistan, near the Pakistani border.
News that the U.S. had dropped the biggest non-nuclear bomb in its arsenal, a 10,000-kilogram explosive that headline writers called “the mother of all bombs,” was taken as a message directed at Kim Jong Un. Trump brushed off questions about whether the bombing was a message for Pyongyang, but he stressed his feeling that North Korea is “a problem that will be taken care of.”
Contributors to this story included White House correspondent Steve Herman, Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb and VOA’s national security correspondent, Jeff Seldin.