Calls for more intense diplomacy on North Korea vied Friday with threats of force, with little sense of what strategy would prevail in Washington or Pyongyang or which leader would blink first.
As the vacationing president tossed off remarks that in other times would have indicated imminent conflict, U.S. friends and foes could only watch, wait and hold their breath.
“Nobody loves a peaceful solution more than President Trump,” Trump told reporters late in the day, after a meeting at his Bedminster, N.J., golf club with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and national security adviser H.R. McMaster.
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But, Trump said, “we could also have a bad solution.” Asked by a reporter whether he was “thinking of war” with North Korea, Trump said enigmatically, “I think you know the answer to that.”
As questions strayed into other areas of foreign and domestic policy, Trump said without elaboration that he was “not going to rule out a military option” to deal with political strife in Venezuela under President Nicolás Maduro, whom he has called a “dictator.”
But most of Trump’s comments returned again to North Korea. He said that the United States was preparing “very, very strong” additional sanctions against Pyongyang, following last Saturday’s unanimous U.N. Security Council passage of a harsh sanctions package.
Asked whether he and the president were on the same page, Tillerson, who has emphasized a diplomatic solution to the North Korea crisis, said, “Totally.”
“It takes a combined message if we’re going to get effective movement out of the regime in North Korea. . . . I think the president has made it clear he prefers a diplomatic solution,” said the secretary, who stood at Trump’s side.
The president said he planned to speak by telephone Friday night with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
China has indicated that it would stay neutral if North Korea struck first and the United States retaliated but would intervene on behalf of Pyongyang after a U.S. first strike.
In other world reactions Friday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that “verbal escalation” was the “wrong response” to Pyongyang’s heated rhetoric, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said his country was equally worried about U.S. talk of a preemptive strike and North Korea’s warning of an attack near Guam.
Trump began the day on Twitter with a fresh threat, saying the U.S. military is “locked and loaded” and ready to take action against North Korea if it continues to “act unwisely.” To drive home the point, he retweeted images from the U.S. Pacific Command showing Air Force B-1B bombers.
In Pyongyang, a commentary in the state-run newspaper said that “U.S. military warmongers are running amok” and warned that “the U.S. and its vassal forces will pay dearly” for new economic sanctions and for “reckless military provocation.”
The State Department said Tillerson traveled to New Jersey to brief Trump on his just-completed trip to East Asia. In regional summits and bilateral meetings, Tillerson pushed for full implementation of the new sanctions against North Korea that Haley successfully shepherded through the Security Council.
Neither Tillerson nor Defense Secretary Jim Mattis have spoken directly about Trump’s threats. Mattis has said the military is prepared for any eventuality but has warned of the catastrophic nature of war. Both Mattis and Tillerson have issued statements this week indicating that diplomacy and economic pressure remain the centerpieces of U.S. policy toward North Korea.
Trump said that for part of the day Monday he would return to Washington, where he said he has scheduled a “very important meeting” and would have “a pretty big press conference.”
On Thursday and again Friday, Trump seemed to relish the opportunity to rattle U.S. sabers in brief exchanges with reporters interspersed among meetings on national security and other subjects. Those who say he is increasing tensions “are only saying that because it’s me,” he said after a midday session on workforce issues. “If somebody else uttered the exact same words that I uttered, they’d say, ‘What a great statement, what a wonderful statement.’ . . . We have tens of millions of people in this country that are saying . . . ‘Finally, we have a president that’s sticking up for our nation.’ ”
What he meant by “locked and loaded” was “pretty obvious,” Trump said. “Those words are very, very easy to understand.” If Kim “utters one threat in the form of an overt threat . . . if he does anything with respect to Guam or any place else . . . he will truly regret it, and he will regret it fast.”
Asked about Merkel’s remarks, Trump said: “Perhaps she was speaking for Germany. She is certainly not referring to the United States.” He called Merkel “a very good person” who was a friend of his and of his daughter Ivanka.
Speaking in Berlin after Trump’s morning tweet, Merkel said that “I don’t see a military solution to this conflict,” according to Deutsche Welle, a German broadcaster. “I see the need for enduring work at the U.N. Security Council . . . as well as tight cooperation between the countries involved, especially the U.S. and China.”
Germany, Merkel said, “will very intensively take part in the options for resolution that are not military, but I consider a verbal escalation to be the wrong response.”
In Russia, Lavrov said that the risks of direct conflict “are very high, especially given this rhetoric, [when] direct threats of using force are being made.”
Amid calls at home and abroad for dialogue, the administration has kept open a back channel of talks with Pyongyang. But a senior official, speaking earlier this week, said, “I wouldn’t want to steer you toward the idea that there’s a lot going on.”
“I would only say that if the North Koreans were ready to talk on terms that we would consider acceptable, it wouldn’t be hard for them to find us,” said the official, who was not authorized to publicly comment and so spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Tillerson made a similar reference at an Asian security forum last week in the Philippines. “We have other means of communication open to them,” he said of the North Koreans, “to certainly hear from them if they have a desire to want to talk.”
North Korea closed down the official “New York channel,” as the communication line between its U.N. diplomats and U.S. officials is called, in June 2016, after the Obama administration imposed sanctions on Kim Jong Un by name for human rights abuses. Washington and Pyongyang have no diplomatic relations.
But talks were opened again this spring, when the U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, Joseph Yun, traveled to Oslo to meet with Pak Song Il, a senior diplomat at Pyongyang’s U.N. mission, on the sidelines of unofficial “track two” talks routinely held among regional experts.
The main purpose of that meeting, hosted by Norway, was to discuss four Americans being held hostage by North Korea, officials said at the time. Yun’s direct counterpart, Choe Son Hui, director of the America division in North Korea’s Foreign Ministry, agreed to allow consular access to the four by Swedish diplomats representing the United States in Pyongyang.
Before those visits could take place, however, Pak urgently summoned Yun to New York in early June to tell him that one of the four, 22-year-old American student Otto Warmbier, was ill and was being released. Warmbier had been arrested 17 months earlier for allegedly attempting to steal a propaganda poster while on a tour to North Korea.
Yun and a medical team traveled to Pyongyang, where they found Warmbier in a coma. He was flown back to the United States and died a week later without regaining consciousness.
Since then, according to a person with knowledge of the situation, Yun has messaged Pak with a willingness to have bilateral “talks about talks,” even as he has pursued the release of the other three Americans.
Asked Friday about back-channel contacts, Trump declined to comment on the subject.
Johnson reported from Bedminster, N.J. Philip Rucker, Dan Lamothe and Brian Murphy, in Washington, and Anna Fifield, in Seoul, contributed to this report.