US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis issued a stark warning to North Korea yesterday, telling Pyongyang that it should stop any actions that would lead to the “end of its regime and the destruction of its people”.
Mattis’ words, some of the strongest he has issued on North Korea, followed incendiary comments from President Donald Trump who said on Tuesday that threats to the United States from Pyongyang would be met with “fire and fury”.
Trump’s unexpected remarks prompted North Korea to respond by saying it was considering plans for a missile strike on the US Pacific territory of Guam.
Mattis said in a statement that the United States and its allies would win any arms race or conflict with North Korea.
“The DPRK must choose to stop isolating itself and stand down its pursuit of nuclear weapons,” Mattis said, using the acronym for North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “The DPRK should cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people,” he added.
On global markets, the strong rhetoric and sharp increase in tensions drove investors out of stocks and other risky assets yesterday and into textbook safe havens like gold and Treasuries.
The United States and South Korea remain technically still at war with North Korea after the 1950-53 Korean conflict ended with a truce, not a peace treaty.
Tension in the region has risen since North Korea carried out two nuclear bomb tests last year and two intercontinental ballistic missile tests in July.
Trump has said he will not allow Pyongyang to develop a nuclear weapon capable of hitting the United States.
Yesterday, Trump followed up his “fire and fury” warning with a boast about US nuclear capabilities.
“My first order as President was to renovate and modernise our nuclear arsenal. It is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before,” Trump tweeted. “Hopefully we will never have to use this power, but there will never be a time that we are not the most powerful nation in the world!”
Trump’s “fire and fury” remarks prompted warnings from US officials and analysts not to engage in rhetorical slanging matches with Pyongyang.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sought to play down the rhetoric. Before Trump’s tweets on the nuclear arsenal, Tillerson arrived in Guam on a previously scheduled visit after telling reporters he did not believe there was an imminent threat from North Korea and “Americans should sleep well at night”.
With his “fire and fury” warning, Trump was “sending a strong message to North Korea in language that (North Korean leader) Kim Jong-un would understand, because he doesn’t seem to understand diplomatic language,” Tillerson said.
The UN Security Council unanimously imposed new sanctions on North Korea on Saturday. US military officials sought to play down the potential for military conflict. Three US officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the United States had not moved additional assets into the region after North Korea’s threats against Guam.
“Just because the rhetoric goes up, doesn’t mean our posture changes,” one official said. “The only time our posture goes up is based on facts, not because of what Kim and Trump say to each other,” the official added.
While Trump said the nuclear arsenal was more powerful than ever before, US officials say it takes decades to actually modernise nuclear weapons, a move already under way under President Barack Obama’s administration, and there are treaties that regulate nuclear expansion.
Trump signed an executive order after he took office in January to initiate a review of nuclear policy and strategy.
A senior administration official who deals with the Korea issue said the “fire and fury” comment, which was Trump’s strongest warning yet for North Korea and which he delivered to reporters in New Jersey, was “unplanned and spontaneous”.
“There had not been any discussions about escalating the rhetoric in response to Kim’s statements or about the possible effects of doing that,” the official said.
The official added, however, “it is important for the North Koreans to understand that this country’s strategic patience is exhausted and that our resolve to defend our allies, whatever is required to do that, is not.”
In his comments on Tuesday, Trump said: “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States.
They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” Critics included fellow Republican John McCain, head of the Armed Forces Committee in the US Senate, who said Trump should tread cautiously. “You’ve got to be sure you can do what you say you’re going to do,” McCain said in a radio interview.
Steny Hoyer, the No 2 Democrat in the US House of Representatives, said Trump’s threat to North Korea “is reckless and shows a serious lack of judgment.”
North Korea freed a Canadian pastor serving a life sentence on humanitarian grounds, the official KCNA news agency said yesterday.
There was no clear connection between the release of Hyeon Soo Lim and the heightened rhetoric between Washington and Pyongyang. Canadian officials said on Tuesday a delegation led by the country’s national security adviser had gone to North Korea to discuss Lim’s case.
Lim, who served in one of the largest churches in Canada, had been sentenced to hard labour for life in December 2015 after North Korea accused him of attempting to overthrow the regime.
“Strategically, North Korea perhaps hopes to engender some goodwill from Canada as tensions rise,” said Charles Burton, a former Canadian diplomat in China. “They hope that Canada presents some moderating influence on the Trump administration.
“(But) I do not think it is directly connected to the tensions the US president has ratcheted up. North Korea is concerned he would die in prison.”
KCNA said Lim had been released on “sick bail” for humanitarian reasons. Lim, accompanied by his wife and son, is expected to return to Canada today and will be hospitalised on arrival at his wife’s request, a source said. “So far, it has been confirmed that government officials and a doctor are accompanying Reverend Lim,” said the source, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak to media. -See page 10
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