President Trump’s threats against North Korea are a means to “remind the regime” in Pyongyang what is at stake if it starts a war it cannot win, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Thursday.
“You’ve heard the words, you’ve seen the videos that they have produced,” Tillerson said of North Korean threats to destroy the United States with nuclear weapons. “I think the president just felt it was necessary to remind the regime of what the consequences for them would be if they chose to carry out those threats.”
Trump’s warning last week that he would rain “fire and fury” on North Korea if it made a move against the United States complicated Tillerson’s diplomacy with Asian partners gathered for a security conference that also included a North Korean envoy.
The conference ended with a strong statement condemning North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile tests, but U.S. officials have had to repeatedly reassure allies that Trump does not intend to escalate an already precarious standoff.
North Korea appeared to successfully test an intercontinental ballistic missile last month, proving that it could threaten the U.S. mainland. The country is working to attach a nuclear warhead to such missiles, a capability that leader Kim Jong Un says he needs to prevent a U.S. attack on North Korea.
“Knowing that North Korea sits with a significant capability already within their grasp, I think it is only prudent that they fully understand the consequences, should they make a bad choice for themselves,” Tillerson said.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis warned Pyongyang that both the United States and Japan would respond with overwhelming force if it attacks first.
“Together, we will deter, and if necessary defeat, any threat,” Mattis said in a news conference with Tillerson and their Japanese counterparts following a meeting at the State Department. “Any initiation of hostilities will be met with an effective and overwhelming response.”
Asked what would happen if North Korea followed through on a threat to launch missiles toward the United States or its allies, Mattis replied succinctly.
“We would take immediate, specific actions to take it down,” the U.S. defense chief said.
Tillerson declined to comment on reported remarks from Trump chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon that the escalating tensions surrounding North Korea are a “sideshow” to the more consequential economic competition between the United States and China.
“Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that 10 million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no military solution here, they got us,’’ Bannon was quoted as saying.
Tillerson added that he had read the remarks, which came during a lengthy interview Bannon gave earlier this week to the liberal American Prospect magazine.
“I think we have been quite clear as to what the policy and the posture toward North Korea is,” Tillerson added.
Tillerson said the United States will continue to work diplomatically for negotiations that end with North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons.
“At some point, with a unified, international message like we’ve never had before, they will realize the level of isolation they find themselves in,” he said of North Korea. “And that the future that they will face with that level of isolation is bleak, and will only become bleaker,” Tillerson said.
Japan’s foreign minister, Taro Kono, said they agreed to call on China to take “specific measures to make North Korea change its behavior,” leading to a denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
Both Tillerson and Kono also offered condolences for the loss of life and injuries in Barcelona, where a van was driven into pedestrians. Tillerson said the incident “has the hallmarks, it appears, of yet another terror attack.”
The United States is ready to offer law enforcement and other help, and the U.S. Embassy in Barcelona is helping Americans who may be affected, Tillerson said.
“Terrorists around the world should know the United States and our allies are resolved to find you and bring you to justice,” Tillerson said.