After a week of incendiary language from President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, administration officials on Sunday tried to tamp down fears that the two nations are on the brink of a nuclear war.
The officials projected calm, a message directed as much to North Korea as to Americans, in a concerted effort to be more cautious in the language they use about the nuclear-armed nation and not further escalate an already perilous situation.
“An attack from North Korea is not something that is imminent,” said CIA Director Mike Pompeo on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
Appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” Pompeo expanded on the potential for war, saying, “What I’m talking about is, I’ve heard folks talking about being on the cusp of a nuclear war.” But, he added, there is “no intelligence that would indicate that we’re in that place today.”
National security adviser H.R. McMaster said that nearly a week of Trump’s threats to rain down “fire, fury and frankly, power” on North Korea were an attempt to remove any “ambiguity” about what Pyongyang could expect if the threats against the United States continue. But he said the language did not mean that war is inevitable or even near.
“I think we’re not closer to war than a week ago,” McMaster said on ABC’s “This Week.” “But we are closer to war than we were a decade ago.”
Their assessments mirrored one made by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last week while returning from talks in Asia. Tillerson, who has repeatedly rejected the idea that the United States seeks regime change in Pyongyang, said that there is no imminent threat from North Korea and that Americans should sleep soundly despite the fierce rhetoric coming from both capitals. On Friday, the day after Tillerson came home, Trump tweeted that the U.S. military was “fully in place, locked and loaded” for an attack on North Korea.
Asked on “This Week” if the United States is indeed locked and loaded, McMaster pivoted from military force to diplomacy.
“The United States military is locked and loaded every day,” McMaster said. He added that the United States has “tremendous military capabilities” and a “very high degree of readiness.”
“But the purpose of capable, ready forces is to preserve peace and prevent war,” he said, calling for concerted pressure on North Korea by the United States, its allies and “responsible” nations.
The pitch for more diplomacy came as Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, went to Asia for a series of meetings. According to news reports from Seoul, Dunford meets Monday with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and is scheduled to visit Japan and China.
Tensions over North Korea’s arsenal, which Pyongyang says is designed to protect the country from an invasion by the United States, have deteriorated swiftly in recent weeks. The rhetoric on both sides has been particularly heated since North Korea tested two intercontinental ballistic missiles in July, a month that marked the 64th anniversary of the armistice celebrated by North Koreans as their “victory” in the 1950 to 1953 Korean War.
The tests prompted the United States to seek a seventh round of tough sanctions against North Korea, approved unanimously on Aug. 5 by the U.N. Security Council. Hours after Trump issued the fire-and-fury warning, Pyongyang said it would send ballistic missiles near the U.S. territory of Guam, home to 170,000 U.S. citizens and about 12,000 U.S. forces and their dependents.
The dizzying speed with which the threats have flown back and forth has alarmed some national security experts who believe Trump is fanning the flames.
“I think it eliminates maneuver space for him, because it looks like brinkmanship to me,” said Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“And it looks like clearly he’s, at least verbally, focused very specifically on the military options with the rhetoric that’s out there. It’s almost a fire and brimstone, ‘Don’t make another move or else.’ ”
Mullen said he fears that things could spin “out of control.”
Despite Trump’s combative language, the administration remains focused on diplomatic efforts to defuse tensions. The White House has leaned on China, North Korea’s economic lifeline, to squeeze its neighbor by strictly enforcing the U.N. sanctions it voted for. In the past, Beijing has initially carried out each round of sanctions, only to backslide. Trump has said he might be more forgiving of China’s lopsided trade with the United States if it pressures North Korea more.
At a regional security conference in Manila last week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi urged his North Korean counterpart, Ri Yong Ho, to comply with U.N. prohibitions on its missile and nuclear testing. And a state-run newspaper in China has suggested that Beijing would remain neutral if North Korea strikes the United States first.
But decades of efforts to stop North Korea’s nuclear and missile program have failed, and there is no consensus about what could work now. North Korea has made strides in the technology needed to miniaturize nuclear warheads so that, as Pyongyang boasts, the entire U.S. mainland is within its range.
Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, speaking on “Face the Nation,” called for a joint strategy of “containment and deterrence.”
Pompeo said that Kim responds to “external stimulus,” such as pressure from China and ultimatums from the White House. But he suggested that may be insufficient.
“This is not a leader for whom containment is a policy that makes sense for American national security,” he said.
Pompeo said he would not be surprised if North Korea conducts more banned missile tests.
“The president made clear to the North Korean regime how America will respond if certain actions are taken,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.”
“We are hopeful that the leader of the country will understand [Trump’s remarks] in precisely the way they were intended, to permit him to get to a place where we can get the nuclear weapons off the peninsula. . . . That’s the best message you can deliver to someone who is putting America at risk.”