"Military action would certainly be an option," he said
Diplomacy with Pyongyang has failed over the past decades, he said
President Donald Trump stepped back from the possibility of imminent military action against North Korea on Thursday, saying such an event is neither inevitable nor preferable.
But he continued to present the threat of strikes as an option, if not the most desirable one.
“Each day, new equipment is delivered; new and beautiful equipment, the best in the world – the best anywhere in the world, by far,” he said of US military capacity. “Hopefully, we’re not going to have to use it on North Korea.”
“Military action would certainly be an option,” he added during a White House news conference. “It would be great if something else could be worked out.”
Trump’s comments come amid increased tensions with North Korea, which conducted its sixth nuclear test over the weekend. Trump refused to say during his news conference on Thursday whether he would accept the country as a nuclear-armed state, insisting that he would not state his negotiating parameters publicly.
The United States has long held that a nuclear North Korea is unacceptable, demanding the country end its weapons program.
A senior administration official downplayed Trump’s remarks afterward, saying Trump had not intended to signal he would accept North Korea as a nuclear state.
“I wouldn’t read too much into the absence of an assertion to mean he would be willing to accept a nuclear North Korea,” the official told reporters. “That runs counter to most of his other comments, including a conversation I had with him yesterday.”
The official cast doubt on attempts to prevent North Korea from obtaining a nuclear weapon using methods employed in the past, suggesting the country’s intentions are unlike those of other nations with nuclear ambitions.
“There are real concerns North Korea might not be able to be deterred,” the official said. “There are real differences between North Korea and the small group of nations that have these weapons.”
Trump, in a joint appearance with the Kuwaiti emir, said attempts at diplomacy with Pyongyang had failed over the past decades. But he insisted that military action wouldn’t be his first choice.
“I would prefer not going to the route of the military but it is certainly something that could happen,” Trump said.
The official spoke more bluntly, telling reporters “it’s not the time to negotiate with North Korea. That is plainly clear to us.”
That reflects Trump’s own view, expressed last week on Twitter, that “talking is not the answer” with North Korea.
Trump and his aides have been wrestling with options for North Korea ever since the country began making provocative missile tests early in his term. The tests began ratcheting up over the summer, as did Trump’s rhetoric against the country.
In August, Trump warned of “fire and fury” if North Korea continued to take threatening actions against the US. But since then he’s stepped back from that type of bellicose language.
At the United Nations this week, Trump’s envoy Nikki Haley encouraged fellow members of the UN Security Council to exhaust all options diplomatically – including tough new sanctions – in an attempt to shut off support for North Korea.
Since then, the US has proposed a resolution at the UN that would include broad new sanctions on North Korea and freeze the assets of leader Kim Jong Un, according to a UN diplomat.
The draft resolution includes a full ban on exports of oil to North Korea, a full ban on textile imports from North Korea, a ban on North Korean laborers generating earnings overseas, and the asset freeze, which will also target members of the ruling worker’s party, the diplomat said, calling it a “hard-hitting, ambitious resolution.”
Trump is due to deliver his first major address to the UN in two weeks.
Administration officials said on Thursday there remains ample room for additional economic pressure on North Korea.
“The amount of pressure North Korea has been under is less than pressure applied to Iran and Iraq,” the official said.
Trump said at the White House on Wednesday that military action is not his “first choice” to address North Korea’s ongoing moves to develop its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, hours after he spoke by phone with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
“We’ll see what happens. We’ll see what happens,” Trump said when asked if he was still considering military action. “Certainly that’s not a first choice, but we’ll see what happens.”
Trump said that he believed he and Xi are on the same page following what he described as a “very, very frank and very strong phone call.”
“We will not be putting up with what’s happening in North Korea. I believe that President Xi agrees with me 100%,” Trump said from the South Lawn as he prepared to board Marine One.
CNN’s Jeremy Diamond contributed to this report.