U.S. secretary of state says no 'imminent' North Korea threat despite rhetoric

President Donald Trump declared the U.S. nuclear arsenal “far stronger and more powerful than ever before,” even as his top diplomat was working to calm the North Korea crisis and insisting there wasn’t “any imminent threat.”

In a series of early-morning tweets Wednesday, Trump reaffirmed his threat from a day earlier by reposting video of him warning the previous day that Pyongyang would be “met with fire and fury like the world has never seen” if it made more threats to the U.S. Then, he said that his first order as president had been to “renovate and modernize” the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

“Hopefully we will never have to use this power, but there will never be a time that we are not the most powerful nation in the world!” Trump tweeted.

It wasn’t immediately clear what evidence the president had, if any, to support his claim about the nuclear force.

The crisis centres on comments from North Korea’s army, which said it is studying a plan to create an “enveloping fire” in areas around Guam, a U.S. territory about 3,400 kilometres away, with medium to long-range ballistic missiles.

Trump issued an executive order in his first days in office calling for a review to ensure the U.S. nuclear deterrent is “modern, robust, flexible, resilient, ready” and appropriately tailored for 21st century threats. The White House has not detailed any findings from that evaluation. A modernization effort started by former president Barack Obama is in the early stages, but the force is essentially unchanged from the way Trump inherited it on Jan. 20.

Only hours before Trump’s tweets, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged calm and said Americans should have “no concerns” despite the exchange of threats between the president and North Korea. Aboard his plane as he flew home from a working trip to Asia, Tillerson insisted the developments didn’t suggest the U.S. was moving closer to a military option to dealing with the crisis.

“Americans should sleep well at night,” Tillerson said.

“Nothing that I have seen and nothing that I know of would indicate that the situation has dramatically changed in the last 24 hours.”

It wasn’t clear if Tillerson had any indication Trump would give such a stern warning with his “fire and fury” remarks.

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U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, shown in Malaysia on Tuesday, said the president wanted to send strong language to North Korea to avoid any grave miscalculations. (Vincent Thian/Associated Press)

“The DRPK regime’s actions will continue to be grossly overmatched by ours and would lose any arms race or conflict it initiates.”

The mixed messages between Trump and Tillerson put the onus on the North Koreans to decide how to interpret the latest missives from the U.S.

“What the president is doing is sending a strong message to North Korea in language that Kim Jong-un can understand, because he doesn’t seem to understand diplomatic language,” Tillerson said. “I think the president just wanted to be clear to the North Korean regime on the U.S. unquestionable ability to defend itself.” He said the U.S. “will defend itself and its allies.”

The comments put Tillerson once again in the role of translating the president’s aggressive rhetoric into more diplomatic terms, and of working to minimize the chances of public panic. In fact, Tillerson argued that North Korea’s escalating threats indicated it was feeling the pressure from a successful U.S. strategy.

In response to Trump’s “fire and fury” comments, North Korea threatened to hit Guam with its Hwasong-12 missiles, which it says can carry a heavy nuclear warhead. The tiny U.S. territory houses U.S. military bases and is a common refuelling stop for U.S. government aircraft traversing the Pacific Ocean.

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Donald Trump, left, threatened to bring force to North Korea ‘the likes of which the world has never seen,’ with North Korea, led by Kim Jong-un, responding by threatening to send a missile to Guam, the key strategic U.S. territory in the Pacific. (Drew Angerer, Ed Jones/Getty Images)

Todd Thompson, a lawyer who lives on Guam, said he laughed off past threats because he “figured cooler heads in Washington would prevail, and it was just an idle threat.”

“But I have to say, I’m not laughing now,” Thompson said. “My concern is that things have changed in Washington, and who knows what’s going to happen?”

Trump threat a bluff: Graham

Though Tillerson insisted there was no imminent threat, he noted even if there were, “the North Korean missile capability can point in many directions, so Guam is not the only place that would be under threat.”

U.S. Defence Secretary James Mattis weighed in publicly on Wednesday, urging North Korea to “stand down in its pursuit of nuclear weapons.”

“The DRPK regime’s actions will continue to be grossly overmatched by ours and would lose any arms race or conflict it initiates,” Mattis said in a statement.

At least one prominent lawmaker felt Trump wasn’t bluffing with his threat.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican on the Senate’s armed services committee, told CBS’s This Morning that Trump had “basically drawn a red line” by saying Pyongyang can’t ever have a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking the U.S.

“He’s not going to let that happen,” Graham said. “He’s not going to contain the threat. He’s going to stop the threat.”

Tillerson, who spent the past days in Asia working the North Korea conflict, said he didn’t believe a new diplomatic strategy was needed. To the contrary, he said the latest threat from the North suggested the current strategy was working. After months of frustration over China’s reluctance to pressure Pyongyang economically, the U.S. on Saturday secured a unanimous UN Security Council vote to authorize sweeping new sanctions that target one-third of the North’s exports.

“The pressure is starting to show,” Tillerson said. “I think that’s why the rhetoric coming out of Pyongyang is beginning to become louder and more threatening. Whether we’ve got them backed into a corner or not is difficult to say, but diplomatically, you never like to have someone in a corner without a way for them to get out.”

AP Explains North Korea Guam

People are shown in Hagatna, Guam on Aug. 9. The strategic U.S. territory finds itself caught in the middle of rising tensions between President Donald Trump and North Korea. (Grace Garces Bordallo/Associated Press)

To that end, Tillerson said there was still an off-ramp available to Pyongyang: A return to negotiations with the U.S., a step that Tillerson has previously said can happen only if Kim Jong-un’s government gives up its nuclear aspirations, starting with an extended pause in missile tests.

“Talks,” Tillerson said when asked if North Korea had a way out. “Talks, with the right expectation of what those talks will be about.”

In Pyongyang on Wednesday, tens of thousands packed Kim Il-sung Square for a rally planned after the UN sanctions that followed a familiar format of speeches from a balcony, with the crowd listening below, standing in organized rows interspersed with placards and slogans.

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