TOKYO — Ahead of major celebrations this weekend — including a possible nuclear test — North Korea raised its threats against Donald Trump warning that the world was on the brink of “thermo-nuclear war.” This prompted China to issue a stern warning Friday to the United States and North Korea, urging them not to push their recriminations to a point of no return and allow war to break out on the Korean Peninsula.
In comments carried by China’s official Xinhua news agency, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said “storm clouds” were gathering, an apparent reference to North Korean preparations to conduct a new nuclear test and the United States’ deployment of a naval strike force to the waters off the peninsula. In addition, the U.S. military has been conducting large-scale exercises with South Korean forces, drills that the North considers provocative.
“The United States and South Korea and North Korea are engaging in tit for tat, with swords drawn and bows bent,” Wang said at a news conference after meeting with visiting French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, Xinhua reported. “We urge all parties to refrain from inflammatory or threatening statements or deeds to prevent irreversible damage to the situation on the Korean Peninsula.”
Trump administration officials describe the situation as more dangerous than in the past, both because of the progress North Korea has made in its nuclear and missile programs and because of the hostility on both sides. But U.S. officials said no decision has been made about how to respond to any new test — nuclear or ballistic — by North Korea.
In the event of either a nuclear or a missile test, the U.S. military is likely at a minimum to conduct a show of force, potentially repositioning American forces within South Korea, flying long-range bombers over the southern part of the peninsula or moving ships around in nearby waters.
While officials do not rule out other actions, they also stress their desire to ensure that the situation does not escalate out of control. Pentagon officials denied recent media reports that the Trump administration is ready to launch a preemptive strike if North Korea appears to be about to conduct a nuclear test.
On Friday, North Korea accused President Trump of “making trouble” with his “aggressive” tweets, amid concerns that tensions between the two countries could escalate into military action.
And the North Korean army threatened to annihilate U.S. military bases in South Korea and the presidential palace in Seoul in response to what it called Trump’s “maniacal military provocations.”
Tensions have been steadily mounting in recent weeks as North Korea prepares for what it is calling a “big” event to mark the anniversary of its founder’s birthday Saturday, while the Trump administration warns that all options are on the table.
Expectations for a nuclear test or a missile launch in the lead-up to Saturday’s celebrations in Pyongyang have not come to pass. Instead, there are signs that the regime is getting ready to hold a huge parade this weekend, perhaps showing off new missiles – something that would qualify as the “big” event it has heralded.
Vice President Mike Pence arrives in Seoul on Sunday on the first leg of an Asia tour, and he will doubtless underscore Washington’s strong alliances with South Korea and Japan and their determination to stop North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
The United States has sent an aircraft carrier strike group to the Korean Peninsula region, and Trump has repeatedly tweeted that if China will not use its leverage to rein in North Korea, the United States will act.
In his comments carried by Xinhua, Wang warned that “no one will win” if hostilities escalate. “It is not the one who espouses harsher rhetoric or raises a bigger fist that will win.” He also indicated that China is willing to broker a resumption of “dialogue,” whether “official or unofficial, through one channel or dual channels, bilateral or multilateral.”
North Korea’s vice foreign minister said that Trump was “becoming more vicious and more aggressive” than previous presidents, which was only making matters worse.
“Trump is always making provocations with his aggressive words,” Han Song Ryol told the Associated Press in an interview in Pyongyang. “So that’s why. It’s not the DPRK but the U.S. and Trump that makes trouble,” he said, using the abbreviation for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as North Korea is officially known.
Han also repeated the regime’s common refrain that North Korea is ready to act to defend itself.
“We’ve got a powerful nuclear deterrent already in our hands, and we certainly will not keep our arms crossed in the face of a U.S. preemptive strike,” Han told the AP.
As for when the next nuclear test would take place, “that is something that our headquarters decides,” he said.
His message chimed with a statement Friday from North Korea’s Institute for Disarmament and Peace that it was the United States pushing the Korean Peninsula, “the world’s biggest hotspot,” to the brink of war by bringing back a naval strike group.
“This has created a dangerous situation in which a thermo-nuclear war may break out any moment on the peninsula and pose a serious threat to the world’s peace and security,” the statement said.
North Korea has a habit of fuelling tensions to increase the rewards it might extract from the outside world if it desists. Previously, the North has agreed to return to denuclearization talks in return for aid or the easing of sanctions.
Trump is tearing up that old playbook, analysts said.
“This approach to North Korea is relatively new,” said James Kim of the Asan Institute of Policy Studies in Seoul. “The approach in the past has been very calculated.”
That has gone out the window with talk about military options, he said. “We always knew all these options were there, but no one was bold enough to go down that path. It’s a new approach.”
Some in Beijing are noticing the shift, too.
“It should be noted that there is a personality difference between Trump and Obama,” the Global Times newspaper wrote Friday. The paper does not speak for the Chinese government on policy but often reflects a strain of thinking within the Communist Party.
“Trump is also willing to show he is different. Bombing Syria helps him to show that,” it continued, while noting that he was far from “revolutionary” because he dispatched only missiles, not troops.
But North Korea could prove different if it calls Trump’s bluff and conducts another nuclear test, the paper said. “Trump just took the office; if he loses to Pyongyang, he would feel like he had lost some prestige.”
Right now, Trump has some cards to play, said Kim of the Asan Institute.
“He might say: ‘If you want one less battleship in the region, what are you going to give me?’ ” he said – a reversal of the usual situation, in which North Korea asks what it can get from its adversaries in return for changing its behavior.
Trump’s tweets and his conversations with Chinese President Xi Jinping seem designed to push Beijing to crack down on North Korea, and there have been some indications that China is getting tougher on its errant neighbor.
China suspended coal imports from North Korea in mid-February – potentially cutting off an economic lifeline – and Chinese customs data released Thursday showed a 52 percent drop in imports in the first three months of this year, compared with the same period last year.
Meanwhile, the Japanese government is taking precautions of its own.
Its National Security Council has discussed how to evacuate the roughly 60,000 Japanese nationals living in South Korea and how to deal with a potential influx of North Koreans, according to multiple local reports. These plans include sifting out spies or soldiers who might be among the refugees.
The North Korean situation is getting more serious, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Friday. “We cannot turn away from this reality. The security environment surrounding Japan is getting tougher.”
Timeline: North Korea’s five nuclear tests and how the U.S. responded
April 15 is the most important day on the North Korean calendar — it’s the birthday of the founder of North Korea, officially known as the Day of the Sun. This year, experts and analysts warn that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un might use the day as an excuse for a dramatic show of force. As the world waits to see what – if anything – North Korea does, here’s a look back at the country’s five nuclear tests, and how the United States responded:
October 2006: Analysts determine that North Korea has conducted its first nuclear test. The first test produced an explosion of less than 1 kiloton, or the equivalent of about 1,000 tons of TNT. That is just a fraction of the size of the bombs dropped by the United States on Japan at World War II’s end.
The U.S. considered this first test a failure. Even so, American officials pushed for tough sanctions, calling for a block on all imports of military equipment to North Korea. Eventually, the United Nations passed a less strenuous measure, specifically targeted to prevent North Korea from acquiring equipment that would help them expand their nuclear program or military.
May 2009: North Korea conducted its second nuclear weapons test. The test was conducted underground. At the time, the U.S. Geological Survey recorded a magnitude 4.7 seismic disturbance. National Intelligence Director James Clapper Jr. later estimated that the test produced an explosion of 2 kilotons.
President Barack Obama called the test a “grave threat,” but military officials said this was a diplomatic, not military, matter. The United Nations imposed tighter sanctions on North Korea – now almost all arms imports were banned. They also called for intensified weapons inspections.
February 2013: Kim Jong Un, then newly in power, conducted his first nuclear test as leader. The test was far larger than earlier experiments. Experts estimate that the bomb was between 6 and 7 kilotons. The test coincided with South Korea’s national elections and Obama’s State of the Union.
In response, the U.S. moved some missile defense equipment and nuclear-capable stealth bombers to South Korea. Then-Secretary of State John Kerry warned that North Korea would lose in a military showdown with the U.S. Kim Jong Un “needs to understand, as I think he probably does, what the outcome of the conflict would be,” Kerry said. In the wake of the test, the United Nations voted to tighten sanctions against the country. The United Nations once against moved to tighten sanctions, extending their asset freeze to individuals and organizations helping Un. Luxury goods were put under sanctions and assets were frozen.
In reality though, by the time North Korea conducted its third test, there were few sanctions left to deploy. By 2013, North Korea’s ability to import goods was severely limited. And Obama declined to take next steps, like a naval blockade to block all shipment of goods. China also continued to provide the country oil and aid.
January 2016: North Korea claimed to have conducted a fourth nuclear test, far underground. On state TV, Kim claimed that the explosion came from a miniaturized hydrogen bomb, and called it a “spectacular success.” Independent observers say they can’t confirm that the test happened. If it did, its size is hard to measure. But they estimate that the explosive yield was between 4 and 6 kilotons.
In the months after, Congress passed a law empowering the administration to sanction individuals who import or expert goods and money to North Korea. The United Nations passed a resolution banning North Korea from “launches using ballistic missile technology.” The resolution also required all member states to “inspect cargo to/from the DPRK or brokered by the DPRK that is within or transiting their territories.”
Obama and America’s allies in the Pacific continued work on THAAD, a missile defense shield. The president rejected a deal, offered by the North Korean regime, to take down the shield in exchange for promises that North Korea would conduct no more nuclear tests.
September 2016: North Korea conducts a fifth nuclear test. The seismic activity generated registered a 5.3 in magnitude, and was thought to have produced an explosion of about 10 kilotons. That’s equivalent to the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and 10 times stronger than what the country was able to do a decade ago.
In response, Obama worked with the United Nations to tighten sanctions even further.
“The United States does not, and never will, accept North Korea as a nuclear state. Far from achieving its stated national security and economic development,” he said. “We are going to work together to make sure we’re closing loopholes and make them even more effective,” in a speech in South Korea. China, which has veto power over the U.N. Security Council, joined a resolutions strongly condemning the missile launch. It also agreed to ban the import of North Korean coal, a major blow to that country’s economy.
Amanda Erickson, The Washington Post