US defence chief Mattis tells North Korea to cease threats that risk ‘end of regime and destruction of its people’
Warning comes as North Korea announced detailed plan to launch a salvo of ballistic missiles toward the US Pacific territory of Guam
US Secretary of Defence James Mattis has warned North Korean leader Kim Jong-un that his government’s military provocations may lead to “the end of its regime and the destruction of its people” if the threats continue.
“Kim Jong-un should take heed of the United Nations Security Council’s unified voice, and statements from governments the world over, who agree the DPRK poses a threat to global security and stability,” Mattis said in a Defence Department announcement. “The DPRK must choose to stop isolating itself and stand down its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
My first order as President was to renovate and modernize our nuclear arsenal. It is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before....
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 9, 2017
...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!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 9, 2017
“While our State Department is making every effort to resolve this global threat through diplomatic means, it must be noted that the combined allied militaries now possess the most precise, rehearsed and robust defensive and offensive capabilities on Earth,” the statement said.
The combative tone from Washington has some analysts concerned that the door to a diplomatic solution is closing as the exchange of threats continued throughout the week. China has called repeatedly for the US and North Korea to negotiate directly, since the escalation of tensions around the Korean Peninsula last year.
“Prior American presidents have shared [Donald Trump’s] frustrations with North Korea, but none of them promised Armageddon if Pyongyang continued to issue the kinds of threats it has made on a monthly basis for decades,” said Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, in an exchange with the South China Morning Post.
“China tries to present itself as the reasonable adult in a room of squabbling children. Beijing will therefore continue to respond to heated rhetoric from Washington and Pyongyang by calling for calm and calm is indeed in short supply.”
Pyongyang appeared to have no immediate intention of calming things down. On Thursday, the official KCNA news service quoted General Kim Rak-gyom lambasting President Trump: “Sound dialogue is not possible with such a guy bereft of reason and only absolute force can work on him.”
Mattis’s statement echoed comments tweeted a few hours earlier, which followed up on sabre-rattling from both sides the day before.
“My first order as president was to renovate and modernise our nuclear arsenal,” Trump said in a tweet. “It is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before.”
Those tweets came a day after the president threatened North Korea with “fire and fury” for Kim’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. North Korea subsequently threatened to launch a missile strike on the US Pacific territory of Guam.
North Korea detailed its Guam threat after Mattis’s announcement. According to the Associated Press, a report in the country’s state media said the North is working on a plan, to be finalised in mid-August, to fire four missiles into waters 30 to 40km from the island.
The steep escalation in rhetoric followed a Washington Post report citing classified US intelligence, which said North Korea had successfully developed technology to fire nuclear-tipped intercontinental missiles.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, speaking to reporters while en route from Asia to Washington, sought to play down Trump’s “fire and fury” comment.
“Nothing that I have seen and nothing that I know of would indicate that the situation has dramatically changed in the last 24 hours,” Tillerson said before Trump tweeted and the Defence Department issued Mattis’s announcement. “Americans should sleep well at night,” he added.
US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert fielded questions from reporters in Washington about the differing messages.
“The president is sending a strong message to North Korea in a kind of language that North Korea understands,” Nauert said, adding that the White House, the State Department and the Defence Department are “speaking with one voice”.
Tillerson and Trump spoke for an hour while the Secretary of State was in transit, Nauert said.
North Korea came under increasing pressure from its neighbours China and Russia over the weekend, when they voted in favour of a United Nations Security Council resolution put forward by US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley aimed at further isolating Pyongyang.
“Threatening unprecedented ‘fire and fury’ while his advisers are sending more mixed messages raises the risk of miscalculation and inadvertent war, particularly if North Korea feels that it must act before an imminent US attack,” Jessica Chen Weiss, an associate professor at Cornell University’s department of government, said in an interview with the South China Morning Post.
“From the standpoint of avoiding war, one hopes that Trump’s improvised threat is correctly interpreted as bluster,” added Weiss, who authored the 2014 Oxford University Press book, Powerful Patriots: Nationalist Protest in China’s Foreign Relations.
The new resolution prohibits UN member states from buying coal, iron ore and other key commodities from North Korea, a move that’s meant to cut the country’s export revenue by US$1 billion annually, according to the Security Council members.
The latest resolution goes beyond a prohibition on exports by sanctioning North Korea’s state-owned Foreign Trade Bank, which is identified as the country’s primary foreign exchange bank.
The resolution also prohibits the formation of any new joint ventures between North Korea and other nations and bans additional investment in existing ones.
Citing joint US-South Korea military exercises that include live-fire drills as a threat, North Korea’s government has for more than a decade maintained its right to conduct missile and nuclear detonation tests and rejected the legality of UN Security Council sanctions against it.
In May, North Korean deputy permanent representative to the UN Kim In-ryong slammed Secretary General Antonio Guterres for not responding to his requests to convene an “international forum of legal experts” to discuss the legal justification for the UN sanctions.
The Security Council has issued eight resolutions since 2006, after six-nation talks involving North Korea, China, the US, Japan, South Korea and Russia broke down.
The US Defence Department characterises the joint exercises, which have been conducted regularly for 40 years, as “defensive in nature”.
The exercises are “designed to increase readiness to defend South Korea, to protect the region, and to maintain stability on the Korean Peninsula”, according to a March 3 Defence Department statement.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse