President Donald Trump said Tuesday that the United States was totally prepared for a military option in dealing with North Korea, while his administration announced new sanctions in response to the country's nuclear and missile activity.
"We are totally prepared for the second option, not a preferred option, but if we take that option it will be devastating, I will tell you that — devastating for North Korea. That's called the military option. If we have to take it, we will," he said.
During a joint news conference with Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy at the White House, Trump said North Korea must no longer be allowed to "threaten the entire world with unthinkable loss of life."
He thanked countries like Spain and China for taking steps to isolate the North Korean regime.
"All nations must act now to ensure the regime's complete denuclearization," Trump said in the White House Rose Garden.
Amid the escalating tensions over Pyongyang's nuclear program, the Trump administration on Tuesday imposed sanctions on eight North Korean banks and 26 bank executives.
"I have recently issued tough new sanctions against those who do business with this outlaw regime, and I applaud China's recent actions to restrict its trade with North Korea," Trump said.
The new restrictions came as the top U.S. general said that "in terms of a sense of urgency today," North Korea posed "the greatest threat" to the United States because of its rapidly developing ballistic missile and nuclear program.
Joint Chiefs Chairman General Joe Dunford, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, added that in terms of "overall military capability," he thought Russia still posed the greatest threat, but that in less than 10 years, China would pose the biggest overall military threat.
Despite an escalation in tension over North Korea, Dunford said Pyongyang had not changed its military posture on the Korean Peninsula.
"What we haven't seen is military activity that would be reflective of the charged political environment," he told lawmakers.
The general also sought to assure lawmakers that the United States was "adequately protected against the current threat" of a nuclear missile attack, but he warned that as that threat increases, the United States must ensure that its ballistic missile defense capability "keeps up" with it.
The $700 billion defense policy budget passed this month includes funding for about 20 additional ground-based interceptors to protect the U.S. homeland from intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Dunford said the United States should assume North Korea can already hit the U.S. with a nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile "and has a will to use that capability."
"Whether it is three months or six months or 18 months, it is soon, and we ought to conduct ourselves as though it is just a matter of time," he said.
Experts and officials have said Pyongyang has not yet mastered the ability of missile re-entry into the atmosphere or the stabilization of long-range missiles, but Dunford stressed that North Korea would no doubt develop solutions to those engineering problems over time.
Earlier Tuesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis emphasized that the U.S. sought a peaceful resolution to escalating tensions with North Korea, despite the regime's claim that a tweet Monday by Trump was tantamount to a declaration of war.
In New Delhi for talks with Indian officials about strengthening U.S.-India ties, Mattis said that while the U.S. military presence on the Korean Peninsula was necessary to deter North Korea's threats, it also supported diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict peacefully.
"That is our goal, to solve this diplomatically, and I believe President Trump has been pretty clear on this issue," Mattis said, following a meeting with India's defense minister.
On Monday, Trump commented on Twitter that if North Korea carried out its threats, Kim Jong Un's regime "won't be around much longer."
Speaking to reporters near U.N. headquarters in New York, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho said, "Given the fact that this comes from someone who is currently holding the seat of the United States presidency, this is clearly a declaration of war."
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called Ri's characterization of the tweet "absurd."
"We've not declared war on North Korea," she said.
Although North Korea has declared "war" many times in the past, now "we've entered a bona fide crisis," Van Jackson, senior lecturer in international relations at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, told VOA.
"Even if we're not in a war right now, we seem to be doing everything in our power to make one happen by actions and statements that make deterrence more likely to fail," said Jackson, a former director for Korea policy and a defense strategy adviser at the U.S. Defense Department.
Threat to bombers
Ri warned that his country might shoot down U.S. strategic bombers, even if they were not in North Korean airspace. According to South Korea's Yonhap news agency Tuesday, Lee Cheol-woo, the chief of the National Assembly's intelligence committee, said Pyongyang was spotted readjusting the position of its warplanes and boosting its defensive capabilities along its east coast.
A fighter jet from North Korea in 1969 shot down an unarmed U.S. Navy reconnaissance plane, outside North Korean territorial airspace in the Sea of Japan, killing 30 sailors and one marine on board.
Some analysts see the path to talks still running through Beijing, which recently moved to cut banking ties between China and North Korea, shut off the supply of liquefied natural gas to the North Koreans and stop imports of their textiles.
"I think that the Chinese are sending a signal to the North that they are skating on thin ice," said T.J. Pempel, a political science professor at the University of California at Berkeley.
VOA's William Gallo contributed to this report from New Delhi.