WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump sought Tuesday to reassert an American military threat against North Korea, saying that “all options are on the table” in response to its launch of a missile over close U.S. ally Japan.
In a terse, written statement, Trump said that North Korea’s missile launch “signaled its contempt for its neighbors, for all members of the United Nations and for minimum standards of acceptable international behavior.”
“Threatening and destabilizing actions only increase the North Korean regime’s isolation in the region and among all nations of the world,” Trump said. “All options are on the table.”
Trump later told reporters, “We’ll see, we’ll see” when asked what he would do. Trump, accompanied by first lady Melania Trump, was departing the White House to survey storm damage in southeast Texas.
North Korea on Tuesday fired a midrange ballistic missile designed to carry a nuclear payload. It flew over Japan and splashed into the northern Pacific Ocean, officials said, as Washington and South Korea were conducting war games nearby.
While the tone of Trump’s statement was tough, it was far less bombastic than his tweets and threats earlier this month. Three weeks ago, he warned of “fire and fury” if North Korea persisted in threatening the United States. A military solution, he added days later, was “locked and loaded.”
But last week, the Trump administration suddenly adopted a more conciliatory tone. It praised the North for not launching any missiles for nearly a month and suggested its newfound restraint could point the way toward new negotiations. The hiatus ended when the North tested three short-range missiles off its eastern coast last Friday.
The president has repeatedly declined to discuss in any detail the potential for a pre-emptive strike on the North, telling reporters that any such deliberations must be kept private to avoid ceding any leverage to Pyongyang.
Still, Tuesday’s statement implied that U.S. military action remains an option for resolving the standoff over North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons that could eventually strike the American mainland. Still, a U.S. military strike against North Korea is considered highly unlikely. Even Trump’s own strategic adviser, Steve Bannon, dismissed the threat as a bluff shortly before he was dismissed earlier this month.
North Korea has the world’s largest standing army and a massive conventional weapons arsenal that can easily target the South Korean capital of Seoul and its metropolitan area of about 25 million people.
While Democrat and Republican presidents have routinely offered the “all options on the table” formulation, U.S. officials have long assessed that the North would likely respond to any U.S. strike by attacking its southern neighbor or nearby Japan. The result could be a war with mass casualties on both sides. Hundreds of thousands of Americans in Northeast Asia, military and civilians, would be endangered.
Despite the heated rhetoric of recent weeks, the U.S. administration has been emphasizing it wants to use economic and diplomatic tactics to pressure North Korea into concessions.
Earlier this month, the U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted its toughest sanctions yet on North Korea after it tested two intercontinental ballistic missiles that put the U.S. mainland in range. The U.S. and its partners have been urging China, the North’s traditional ally and main trading partner, to help in intensifying the pressure.
Trump and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan conferred by telephone over the latest missile test, agreeing that North Korea poses “a grave and growing direct threat” to their countries, South Korea and others around the world, according to a White House statement. They vowed to increase pressure on the North.
“Japan’s and the U.S. positions are totally at one,” Abe added in a statement, adding that Trump expressed his “strong commitment” to defending Japan.
The U.N. Security Council was expected to hold an emergency meeting on the North Korean missile launch later Tuesday.
The test rattled nerves in the region. Within minutes, residents on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido were alerted on their cellphones, and with loud alarms and an email telling them to stay indoors. Speakers broadcast an alert saying “missile is passing, missile is passing.”
The latest tests punctured hopes the tensions might subside after reaching their highest levels in years with Trump’s “fire and fury” warning and the North’s counterthreat to launch missiles into the sea close to the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam.
Trump and his top diplomat, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, went out of their way last week to credit the North’s leader for days of relative restraint. Noting that no missiles had been launched for three weeks, Tillerson had said further restraint could provide a path toward dialogue in the near future.
“Kim Jong Un, I respect the fact that I believe he is starting to respect us,” Trump said at a campaign rally. “I respect that fact very much. Respect that fact. And maybe, probably not, but maybe something positive can come about.”
Associated Press writer Bradley Klapper contributed from Washington.