After what seemed to be a period of de-escalation, President Donald Trump now says “all options are on the table” when it comes to addressing North Korea’s nuclear program.
In a written statement released Tuesday morning, Trump walked back comments made last week praising North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un for restraint and indicating that U.S.-North Korea relations were improving. Striking a decidedly less conciliatory tone, the president implied the isolated nation’s actions could have deadly consequences.
“The world has received North Korea’s latest message loud and clear: this regime has signaled its contempt for its neighbors, for all members of the United Nations, and for minimum standard of acceptable international behavior,” Trump said. “Threatening and destabilizing actions only increase the North Korean regime’s isolation in the region and among all nations of the world. All options are on the table.”
Trump’s statement came shortly after an “unidentified” ballistic missile flew over Hokkaido, Japan on Monday. While experts are still working to analyze whether the missile is a Hwasong-12 (the kind North Korea recently threatened to lob at U.S. territory Guam), many details remain unknown. But the launch unnerved Japan regardless. Government officials reacted with outrage to the strike, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Tuesday that he had spoken with Trump about increasing pressure on the increasingly combative North Korea. For his part, Trump said the United States was “100 percent” with Japan, indicating that the latter can count on U.S. military assistance should the need arise.
That assurance marks the latest in a rollercoaster ride of events, the bulk of which have played out over the course of only a few short months. As Kim Jong-un has ramped up North Korea’s nuclear ambitions (18 missiles have been launched this year alone; 16 were launched during the 17 years that his father, Kim Jong-il, ruled North Korea), the United States has become increasingly wary, as have North Korea’s neighbors.
Since Trump took office, the situation has become even more precarious. Trump has repeatedly slammed North Korea’s missile launches, lashing out at Kim Jong-un with growing frequency. He has also pushed for China to resolve the delicate problem, something the country has shown minimal interest in doing.
Tensions spiked sharply in early August, when North Korea fired off yet another missile, this one an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) seemingly capable of reaching U.S. shores. Trump responded abruptly, threatening North Korea with “fire and fury” should the pattern continue. North Korea promptly threatened Guam, and for a time escalation seemed inevitable.
But then, tempers seemed to cool. Kim Jong-un appeared to back away from fiery rhetoric, and Trump did the same. At a rally in Phoenix, Arizona last week, the president implied mutual respect was forming between the United States and North Korea.
“I respect the fact that I believe he is starting to respect us,” Trump said. “I respect that fact very much. Respect that fact.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also praised the “restraint” shown by Pyongyang, while other figures within the Trump administration offered their own take on U.S.-North Korea relations. Former White House official Steve Bannon addressed the issue in a wide-ranging and controversial interview with the American Prospect, essentially refuting Trump’s earlier threats.
“Forget it,” he said. “Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that ten million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no military solution here, they got us.”
But the advice of Bannon, who left the White House two weeks ago, seems to be going unheeded, if Tuesday’s comments are any indicator. Trump, who seems prepared to use military action, also isn’t alone in reacting to North Korea’s missile launch—the U.N. Security Council is set to hold an emergency meeting to discuss the action later on Tuesday.
Still, it’s unclear what Trump’s threat to use “all options” could mean. When asked Tuesday morning, Tillerson seemed unwilling to comment. “We’ll have more to say about it later,” the diplomat told reporters.
The president also seemed slow to elaborate. On his way to disaster-stricken Texas, which is reeling from a hurricane, Trump was asked by reporters about renewed tensions and what approach the United States intends to take with North Korea.
“We’ll see, we’ll see,” he said.