The situation remains extremely tense after North Korea launched a missile over northern Japan on Monday.
The President struck a noticeably more measured tone than some of his previous statements.
The month of August has been a roller coaster of fluctuating tensions for the US and North Korea, accentuated by a war of words between the leaders of both nations.
At times, President Donald Trump’s words have nearly mirrored the notoriously aggressive threats of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, and at others he seems to suggest signs of progress toward hopes of a diplomatic resolution.
But despite the ebb and flow of rhetoric coming from the White House and consistently provocative threats by Pyongyang in recent weeks, the situation remains extremely tense after North Korea launched a missile over northern Japan on Monday – a move that sparked another direct rebuke from Trump.
Though this time the President struck a noticeably more measured tone than some of his previous statements despite another apparent escalation from Pyongyang.
Trump: “The world has received North Korea’s latest message loud and clear … “Threatening and destabilizing actions only increase the North Korean regime’s isolation in the region and among all nations of the world. All options are on the table.”
The striking similarity between Tuesday’s comments and past promises from previous administrations that they are “keeping all options on the table” seems to suggest that weeks of verbal jousting – ranging from threats of nuclear destruction to optimistic suggestions of progress – have come full-circle.
‘Fire and fury’
Tensions soared in early August after Trump significantly ratcheted up his rhetoric toward North Korea in the wake of news that the rogue nation has successfully miniaturized a nuclear warhead to fit into an intercontinental ballistic missile.
Trump: “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen… he has been very threatening beyond a normal state. They will be met with fire, fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.”
Those reportedly ad-libbed remarks came just hours after Trump cheered the UN security Council’s unanimous approval of additional sanctions against North Korea – a move widely considered as a major diplomatic achievement.
Trump: “After many years of failure,countries are coming together to finally address the dangers posed by North Korea. We must be tough & decisive!” Trump wrote in a tweet.
In response, North Korea issued an unusually specific and provocative warning, threatening to send four missiles toward Guam while ridiculing Trump for spouting “a load of nonsense.”
Top US officials spent the next several days trying to clarify Trump’s “fire and fury” remarks, as Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reiterated that the US’ preference was to resolve the situation through diplomacy while warning an attack on Guam would be met with severe consequences.
Signs of US optimism
On August 15, Kim appeared to back away from his threat to fire missiles toward Guam, but also seemed to put the onus to act on Trump, saying he would “watch a little more the foolish and stupid conduct of the Yankees.”
North Korea: Kim has “examined the (strike) plan for a long time and discussed it with the commanding officers in real earnest.”
On August 16, Trump signaled that he viewed Kim’s move to hold off on plans to launch a missile near Guam as a sign of progress in an early morning tweet.
Trump: “Kim Jong Un of North Korea made a very wise and well reasoned decision. The alternative would have been both catastrophic and unacceptable!”
Despite continued threats from North Korea, including an August 20 warning that the US was risking an “uncontrollable phase of a nuclear war” if it followed through with joint military drills with South Korea, Trump and Tillerson continued to strike an optimistic tone.
Tillerson: “I think it is worth noting, we have had no missile launches or provocative acts on the part of, or provocative actions, on the part of North Korea since the UN Security Council resolution” sanctioning Pyongyang on August 5.
“I am pleased to see that the regime in Pyongyang has demonstrated restraint,” he said. “We hope this is the signal we have been looking for, that they are ready to restrain provocative acts. And perhaps we are seeing a pathway in the near future to having some dialogue.”
Trump followed those comments with what appeared to be a compliment directed at Kim during a campaign rally in Arizona.
Trump: “But, Kim Jong Un, I respect the fact that I believe he is starting to respect us. I respect that fact very much. Respect that fact.”
“And maybe, probably not, but maybe something positive can come about.”
Provocative North Korean launch over Japan
But tensions again began to escalate as the US and South Korea conducted joint military drills despite condemnation from North Korea, which once again directed harsh words at the US in a state-run news report on August 23.
North Korea: “This drill is too radical and dangerous to wrap this precarious action as ‘yearly’ and ‘defensive’ … “The US should not forget that their opponent is armed with nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.”
The US should “wake up from their old way of thinking that their land is safe and the death is an affair of others.”
That warning was followed by this week’s particularly provocative North Korean missile launch over northern Japan that has drawn sharp condemnation from the US and its allies.
Trump: “The world has received North Korea’s latest message loud and clear … All options are on the table.”
The launch comes just over two weeks after North Korea threatened to fire a series of missiles in the waters around Guam.
The country has not followed through with that threat, but firing a missile over Japan and into the Pacific is in Guam’s direction, even if nowhere near the island.
David Wright, co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told CNN that Tuesday’s launch shows a new level of confidence from the North Koreans.
“It is a big deal that they overflew Japan, which they have carefully avoided doing for a number of years,” he said.
Moving forward, North Korea’s new-found confidence is likely to lead to additional missile tests and threats to the region and the US.
The real issue is how continued North Korean provocations distract the US from its goal of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula, according to Anthony Ruggiero, a former deputy director of the US Treasury Department and an expert on the use of targeted financial measures for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“The US should focus on increasing sanctions and diplomacy with key allies (South Korea and Japan) to counter North Korea’s continued sanctions evasion and nuclear weapons and missile programs,” he said.
But after months of failing to make much progress towards slowing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions with tough talk, it remains to be seen how the Trump administration will respond as Kim’s regime continues to push the envelope.