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North Korea steps up threats after Trump vows “fire and fury”

KRT via AP Video

Hours after Donald Trump warned North Korea that additional threats would be met with "fire and fury," North Korea released through state media plans to possibly strike near the island of Guam — a U.S. territory and home to three U.S. military bases.

Why it matters: That direct threat seemed to elevate the prospect of a nuclear showdown to a new level, and it came hours after a bombshell Washington Post report on North Korea's rapidly increasing nuclear capabilities.

Timeline

The report

Washington Post: "North Korea has successfully produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can fit inside its missiles, crossing a key threshold on the path to becoming a full-fledged nuclear power, U.S. intelligence officials have concluded in a confidential assessment."

Why it matters: That's a complex technological feat that sets Pyongyang on the path to being able to launch nuclear attacks. The U.S. assesses that North Korea is likely to have the capability to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles by next year, and the country is hitting nuclear milestones much more quickly than experts had believed possible.

Trump's response

From Bedminster, New Jersey, where he is staying for much of August:

Note: This intelligence had almost certainly reached Trump's desk weeks earlier, but his response came amid intense coverage of the Post's report.

The full statement: "North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen. He has been very threatening beyond a normal state, and as I said they will be met with fire, fury, and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before. Thank you."

The backlash

John McCain, typically a supporter of a hawkish foreign policy, to KTAR radio:

"I take exception to the President's comments because you gotta be able to do what you say you're gonna do...In other words, the old walk softly but carry a big stick, Teddy Roosevelt's saying, which I think is something that should've applied because all it's going to do is bring us closer to a serious confrontation. I think this is very, very, very serious…The great leaders I've seen don't threaten unless they're ready to act and I'm not sure President Trump is ready to act...It's the classic Trump in that he overstates things."

That position was shared by several other foreign policy experts, including Former Defense Secretary William J. Perry, who tweeted, "bluster hurts our national security posture."

The North Korean threat

From North Korean state media:

@sangyanwoon

The potential target

  • Guam is a U.S. territory in the Western Pacific, some 2,100 miles from the North Korean capital of Pyongyang.
  • It has a population of about 160,000 in an area about 1/5th the size of Rhode Island.
  • It is home to multiple U.S. Navy and Air Force bases. According to CNN, a U.S. jet departing from Guam flew over the Korean peninsula on Monday as a warning.

U.S. defensive capabilities

Axios asked several experts last month how prepared the U.S. is for a North Korean attack on the West Coast of the U.S.

Adm. James Stavridis, former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO: "Defensively, we can knock down one or two missiles, but as [North Korea's Kim Jong-un] builds his inventory, we will fall behind."

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Two flashbacks

  1. Just yesterday, Secretary of State Tillerson had left the door open to dialogue (per Reuters): "The best signal that North Korea can give us that they are prepared to talk would be to stop these missile launches," adding that "other means of communications" were open to Pyongyang. He also said any dialogue would deal with how North Korea can "feel secure and prosper economically."
  2. In a 1999 interview, Trump said he'd consider striking first to neutralize the North Korean threat: