President Donald Trump warned Friday that if North Korean leader Kim Jong Un threatens the United States or takes action against Guam, "he will truly regret it, and he will regret it fast."
Expounding on his early morning tweet that U.S. forces were "locked and loaded" for a potential military face-off with the reclusive, nuclear-armed nation, Trump told reporters at his Bedminster, N.J., golf club that U.S. action would be "very, very successful quickly."
Later on Friday, Trump also raised the specter of military action in Venezuela, saying: "We have many options for Venezuela, and by the way, I'm not going to rule out a military option."
After meeting with U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Trump said the situation in Venezuela was a "mess" after last week’s installation by President Nicolas Maduro of a new legislative body with broad powers to rewrite the South American nation’s constitution. Trump and other Latin American leaders agree that the result is a dictatorship.
“This is our neighbor,” Trump said. “We’re all over the world and we have troops all over the world in places that are very, very far away. Venezuela is not very far away, and the people are suffering, and they’re dying.”
The president did not answer questions about whether he wanted regime change there or in North Korea.
Trump refused to discuss any back-channel diplomatic overtures with North Korea, which the Associated Press reported have been ongoing over the past few months. But he did say the U.S. was considering sanctions against Pyongyang that are "as strong as they get."
He planned to speak with Chinese President Xi Jinping later Friday evening and said he remained hopeful the standoff with North Korea "will all work out" with a "peaceful solution."
But as he has done all week, the president appeared more eager to herald U.S. military readiness. Asked what he meant by his earlier "locked and loaded" tweet, Trump said, "I think it's pretty obvious." Earlier this week, Trump threatened North Korea with "fire and fury."
"I hope they are going to fully understand the gravity of what I said, and what I said is what I mean," Trump said. "So hopefully, they (North Korea) will understand.... Those words are very, very easy to understand."
Without mentioning him by name, Trump cautioned North Korea's 33-year-old leader.
"This man will not get away with what he is doing, believe me," the president said.
"And if he utters one threat, in the form of an overt threat – which, by the way, he has been uttering for years, and his family has been uttering for years – or if he does anything with respect to Guam, or any place else that's an American territory or an American ally, he will truly regret it and he will regret it fast."
Tillerson, standing next to Trump later Friday, said he and the president were on the same page. "What the president is doing is trying to support our efforts by making sure North Korea understands what the stakes are," he said.
Trump also said German Chancellor Angela Merkel's warning earlier Friday that there could be no military solution to the North Korean situation wasn't true. Merkel said "an escalation of rhetoric (is) the wrong answer," at a Berlin press conference.
"Perhaps she is referring to Germany," Trump responded. "She's certainly not referring to the United States, that I can tell you."
Seattle expert weighs in on 'war of words'
Washington state is uniquely positioned to respond to a threat on the Korean Peninsula, given its geographical location and military bases that would be among the first to respond.
The Northwest is also home so some of the top academics on the topic who have made a career of studying the Asia Pacific.
"At any point that the North attacks an American city, it gets eliminated. We wipe it out. So that's not an option for them, so I don't lose sleep over an immediate situation," said Dr. Richard Ellings, president of the National Bureau of Asian Research. "I lose sleep over the erosion of the post World War II order in Asia."
Ellings argues North Korea is attempting to further shift the balance of power in the Asia Pacific and undermine the relationship between the U.S. and its allies in the region.
"What (Kim Jong Un) wants to accomplish is to degrade if not eliminate the alliance we have with South Korea, leaving the South Koreans essentially on their own," he said.
He believes Trump's tweets and tough talk this week are aimed at deterring further threats by North Korea, adding failure to intercept the threatened missile strike on Guam would undercut U.S. credibility.
"We don’t want to be tested," said Ellings. "We don’t want to get that close. My feeling is what probably is going on: A, we’re telling the North, 'we’re going to do more than we ever wanted if you do that.' Second, I believe we’re going to China and saying, 'don’t let them to it, because this is now near a red line."
Washington Congressman Adam Smith, ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, has also called for increased cooperation from allies in the region and increased nuclear deterrence and missile defense.
"North Korea is a dangerous country, but I believe that this is a conflict that can absolutely be avoided and I believe that it will be avoided," said Smith. "The President occasionally uses rhetoric that is concerning to me, but I’ve spoken to Secretary (James) Mattis, I’ve spoken to General (Joseph) Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and I think they understand what’s at stake and I think they’re going to be very judicious about using any sort of military force and stumbling into that conflict."
Mattis, who visited Washington state this week to tour both Amazon and Naval Base Kitsap in Bangor, continues to emphasize that the current U.S. approach to North Korea is a "diplomatic one."
Ellings, meanwhile, believes the U.S. needs to increase leverage in order to get the most out of diplomacy and avoid a military conflict, something all experts agree would be catastrophic.
"We need to reverse the strategic situation on the ground. That means investing in things in the defense budget that will change this bad trend in the region, that will give hope and security to Japan and South Korea and others further south in Asia," said Ellings. "These are long term investments. This is absolutely a warm Cold War."
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