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Deep Divisions Emerge in Trump Administration as North Korea Threatens War


Tillerson Supports Trump’s ‘Strong Message’ on North Korea

Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson praised new United Nations sanctions against North Korea and defended President Trump’s ‘fire and fury’ comments.


Photo by Lai Seng Sin/Reuters.

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BRIDGEWATER, N.J. — Senior American officials sent mixed signals on North Korea on Wednesday as President Trump’s “fire and fury” warning rattled allies and adversaries alike, a sign of his administration’s deep divisions as the outcast state once again threatened to wage nuclear war on the United States.

The president’s advisers calibrated his dire warning with statements that, if not directly contradictory, emphasized different points. Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson stressed diplomacy and reassured Americans that they could “sleep well at night,” while Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said North Korea risked “the end of its regime and the destruction of its people” if it did not “stand down.”

North Korea gave no indication that it would do so. In a statement late Wednesday, the North Korean military dismissed Mr. Trump’s fire-and-fury warning on Tuesday as a “load of nonsense” and said only “absolute force” would work on someone so “bereft of reason.” The military threatened to “turn the U.S. mainland into the theater of a nuclear war” and added that any American strike on North Korean missile and nuclear targets would be “mercilessly repelled.”

The statement also said that the North Korean military would finalize a plan by mid-August to fire four midrange missiles into the waters off the Pacific island of Guam, a United States territory used as a strategic base, to create a “historic enveloping fire.”

Guam in Pictures

The spiral of fighting words left the Trump administration debating how to handle a standoff that has defied three presidents and only grown more ominous in recent weeks as North Korea successfully tested intercontinental ballistic missiles for the first time. Neither Mr. Tillerson nor Mr. Mattis had reviewed in advance Mr. Trump’s threat on Tuesday, when he said North Korea “will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” And the dissonance in their own follow-up statements reflected the struggle inside the Trump administration.

“I don’t think there is a single policy at work,” said Ellen L. Frost, a longtime Asia specialist at the East-West Center, a Honolulu-based research organization. “I’m not even sure that Trump cares about having a consistent policy on any subject.” Instead, she said, the president’s fire-and-fury threat was a play to demonstrate toughness to his political base “followed by more nuanced cleanup operations on the part of Tillerson and Mattis, who are walking a political tightrope.”


Trump Threatens North Korea With ‘Fire and Fury’

“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” President Trump said after the isolated nuclear-armed country criticized the United States earlier in the day.


Photo by Al Drago for The New York Times.

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Mr. Trump remained out of public sight on Wednesday at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., where he is spending most of a 17-day working vacation. But he posted a link on Twitter to a news report on his threat, and followed up by boasting that he had ordered the modernization of America’s nuclear arsenal.

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“Hopefully we will never have to use this power,” he wrote, “but there will never be a time that we are not the most powerful nation in the world!”

American allies in Japan and South Korea were caught off guard by Mr. Trump’s threat, as were other regional players like China and Russia. Analysts reported deep anxiety in the region over the prospect that a war of words could easily turn into a real one.

But some discounted Mr. Trump’s comments as the sort of bombast they have become accustomed to from a president who has publicly assailed not just enemies, but even allies like Germany, Canada and Mexico. The difference is that Germany is unlikely to respond to a presidential tirade with an attack on Guam, as North Korea threatened after Mr. Trump’s warning.

Mr. Tillerson took on the role of soother, telling reporters as he returned from a trip to Asia that he saw no reason to believe that war was imminent. He urged North Korea to engage in talks about its nuclear program.

“I think Americans should sleep well at night, have no concerns about this particular rhetoric of the last few days,” Mr. Tillerson said as his plane stopped to refuel in Guam, the very island that North Korea threatened to target. He added, “Nothing I have seen and nothing I know of would indicate that the situation has dramatically changed in the last 24 hours.”

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