Trump: US ready if North Korea acts “unwisely”

By By Jonathan Lemire and Eric Talmadge
The Associated Press
President Donald Trump speaks as (from left) Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and national security adviser H.R. McMaster listen Friday at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J.

BEDMINSTER, N.J. — President Donald Trump on Friday again delivered a bold warning to North Korea, tweeting that the U.S. military is “locked and loaded,” if the isolated rogue nation acts “unwisely,” escalating an exchange of threats between the nuclear-armed nations.

American and South Korean officials said they will move forward with their annual large-scale Ulchi-Freedom Guardian military exercises later this month that North Korea claims are a rehearsal for war. Pyongyang has laid out plans to strike near the U.S. territory of Guam.

Trump tweeted Friday: “Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely. Hopefully Kim Jong-un will find another path!”

He later retweeted a posting from U.S. Pacific Command that showed B-1B Lancer supersonic bombers on Guam that “stand ready to fulfill USFK’s #FightTonight mission if called upon to do so.” “Fight tonight” has long been the motto of U.S. forces in South Korea, to show they are always ready for combat on the Korean Peninsula.

Trump’s provocative public declarations, a break from the careful language of his predecessors, have only grown louder as the week has gone on. They included the president musing that his initial warning of delivering “fire and fury” onto North Korea — which appeared to evoke a nuclear explosion — was too timid. The days of war rhetoric have alarmed some international leaders.

“I don’t see a military solution and I don’t think it’s called for,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said. She would not say if Germany would stand with the United States in case of a military conflict with North Korea and called on the U.N. Security Council to continue to address the issue.

“I think escalating the rhetoric is the wrong answer,” Merkel added.

Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, estimated the risk of a military conflict between the United States and North Korea as “very high,” and said Moscow is deeply concerned.

“When you get close to the point of a fight,” Lavrov said Friday, “the one who is stronger and wiser should be the first to step back from the brink.”

Trump’s bluster, however, stands in stark contrast to an ongoing back channel for negotiations between the United States and North Korea, which came to light Friday. It had been known the two sides had discussions to secure the June release of an American university student. But it wasn’t known until Friday that the contacts have continued, or that they have broached matters other than U.S. detainees.

People familiar with the contacts say the interactions have done nothing to quell tension over North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile advances, which are now fueling fear of military confrontation. But they say the behind-the-scenes discussions could still be a foundation for more serious negotiation.

Despite tension and talk of war, life on the streets of the North Korean capital remains calm. There are no air raid drills or cars in camouflage netting as was the case during previous confrontations.

North Koreans have lived for decades with the state-run media message that war is imminent, the United States is to blame and their country is ready to defend itself. State-run media ensure that the population gets the North Korean side of the story, but they don’t convey any sense of international concern about the situation.

Two days after North Korea laid out its plan to strike with ICBMs near Guam with unsettling specificity, there was no observable march toward combat. U.S. officials said there is no major movement of U.S. military assets to the region, nor are there signs Pyongyang is actively preparing for war.

As it is, the United States has a robust military presence in the region, including six Lancers in Guam and Air Force fighter jet squadrons in South Korea, plus other assets across the Pacific Ocean and in the skies above. U.S. military options range from doing nothing to a full-on conventional assault by air, sea and ground forces. Any order by the president can be executed quickly.

The U.S.-South Korea exercises are an annual event, but they come as Pyongyang says it is readying the plan to fire off four Hwasong-12 intercontinental ballistic missiles toward the tiny island of Guam, which is a U.S. territory and a major military hub. The plan would be sent to Kim for approval just before or as the U.S.-South Korea military drills begin.

The Ulchi-Freedom Guardian exercises are expected to run Aug. 21-31 and involve tens of thousands of American and South Korean troops on the ground and in the sea and air. Washington and Seoul say the exercises are defensive in nature and crucial to maintaining a deterrent against North Korean aggression.

The exercises were scheduled well before tension began to rise over new sanctions against North Korea for its nuclear and missile programs, the increasingly fiery rhetoric from both sides and North Korea’s announcement of the Guam missile plan, which, if carried out, would be its most provocative launch yet. Along with a bigger set of maneuvers held every spring, the U.S.-South Korea exercises are routinely met by condemnation and threats of countermeasures from North Korea.

The heightened military activity this time is a concern because it could increase the possibility of a mishap that could spin into a more serious escalation. North Korea has been increasingly sensitive to the exercises lately because they reportedly include training for “decapitation strikes” to kill Kim Jong-un and his top generals.

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