President Donald Trump told reporters Wednesday that military action against North Korea over its nuclear weapons program is “not our first choice,” but he added, “we will see what happens.”
As he left the White House to travel to North Dakota for a tax reform speech, Trump relayed details of his latest phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping about North Korea.
“President Xi would like to do something,” Trump said. “We’ll see whether or not he can do it. But we will not be putting up with what’s happening in North Korea. I believe that President Xi agrees with me 100 percent. He doesn’t want to see what’s happening there, either. We had a very, very frank and very strong phone call.”
Trump has demanded that China take stronger steps to control North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s behavior, and over the weekend he threatened to cut off all U.S. trade with China over it. China accounts for nearly all of North Korea’s international trade, but Xi has opposed more severe economic sanctions in the past.
Trump’s trade threat against Beijing, which some experts say cannot be taken literally, came after North Korea claimed to have successfully tested a hydrogen bomb that could be mounted on a missile.
Trump told British Prime Minister Theresa May on Tuesday, “Now is not the time to talk to North Korea,” and he has been communicating with other world leaders about the need to exert more pressure on Pyongyang.
While administration officials have threatened a harsh military response if North Korea continues its threatening behavior, they have also continued to promote prospects of a peaceful diplomatic resolution even as Trump publicly dismisses negotiations.
A Navy commander insisted to the Washington Post Wednesday that the combination of diplomatic and economic pressure has been successful so far, at least in the sense that the situation could be significantly worse without it.
“I say it has worked because we are not at war,” said Adm. Scott Swift, commander of the Pacific Fleet.
House members attended a briefing on the North Korea crisis Wednesday with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Joseph Dunford, and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats.
Prior to that meeting, Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., said working with other countries in the region is vital to keeping North Korea in check without employing military force.
“The easiest way to handle this is pressure being built as much as possible so that North Korea backs down,” he said.
That includes attempting to press China to take a firmer hand with Kim’s regime, something Beijing has been hesitant to do out of fear that Kim’s government could collapse or be forced to take even more extreme action to survive.
However, Valadao emphasized that the Trump administration’s strategy has to go beyond diplomacy and economic sanctions.
“I think the U.S. has to continue to invest in more missile defense for ourselves and for our allies, making sure that we have the ability to protect ourselves,” he said.
The goal of all of these policies is to disarm North Korea without a potentially catastrophic military conflict, but Valadao maintained the military option must always be on the table as a last resort.
“We have to exhaust every other opportunity before we commit to sending our young men and women into war,” he said.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., also pointed to “intense partnership” with China as a path to avoiding war, but he cautioned that President Trump’s belligerent rhetoric may be counterproductive.
“Threatening ‘fire and fury’ is totally unhelpful because it reinforces the argument that [Kim] makes, which is that they’re under threat from the west and they need nuclear weapons in order to protect themselves and deter a strike,” he said.
After being briefed by Tillerson and Mattis on what happens if North Korea does fire missiles at a U.S. territory like Guam or Alaska, Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Ill., said an armed conflict is not a desirable outcome but Kim’s threats and hostile actions may force Trump’s hand.
“We’re getting closer and closer to doing that,” LaHood said of military action. “We need to be prepared, but use all diplomatic measures that we can and try to negotiate with him, but we need to be prepared if for some reason he sends a missile our way, that we need to send a forceful military response to him and hopefully he understands that.”