US secretary seeks to cool escalating crisis with North Korea

Rex Tillerson uses diplomatic approach after Trump’s ‘fire and fury’ speech

US secretary of state Rex Tillerson said on Wednesday, August 9 that Donald Trump was trying to send a strong message to North Korea when he said it would face "fire and fury" if it threatened the United States. Video: Reuters


US secretary of state Rex Tillerson sought to cool an escalating crisis with North Korea on Wednesday, claiming that the nuclear armed state posed no “imminent threat”, just hours after Pyongyang said it could target the US Pacific island of Guam.

Speaking the day after president Donald Trump warned North Korea it faced “fire and fury” if it endangered the US, Mr Tillerson highlighted diplomatic efforts to rein in Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programmes even as US allies and partners warned the crisis risked spilling out of control.

“I think Americans should sleep well at night, have no concerns about this particular rhetoric of the last few days,” said Mr Tillerson, who landed in Guam on a return trip from Malaysia to the US on Wednesday.

His comments appeared intended to reduce tensions after Mr Trump’s warning that Pyongyang would face “fire and fury like the world has never seen” if it threatened the US.

James Mattis, US secretary of defence, said on Wednesday that while the state department was “making every effort to resolve this global threat through diplomatic means”, the US and its allies commanded “the most precise, rehearsed and robust defensive and offensive capabilities on Earth”. He added that North Korea “would lose any arms race or conflict it initiates”.

Fears of miscalculation

The US is struggling to contain Pyongyang’s fast-accelerating nuclear missile programme amid fears the two sides could miscalculate in their brinkmanship.

While Washington has previously said that no talks can take place unless North Korea makes commitments on giving up its nuclear programme, China – Pyongyang’s most significant trading and diplomatic partner – has called for both sides to freeze regional military activities and pursue talks at once.

China called on all parties to seek a political settlement and “avoid any words or actions that may intensify the problem and escalate the situation”, while Germany also warned against “a military solution”.

Mr Trump’s rhetoric on Tuesday appeared to invoke the possibility of atomic warfare, due to its echoes of president Harry Truman, who told the American public after the 1945 Hiroshima bomb that Japan could “expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth”. Three days later the US dropped a second bomb.

Mr Tillerson sought to argue that Mr Trump was not hardening Washington’s position.

“I think what the president was just reaffirming is that the US has the capability to fully defend itself from any attack, and our allies, and we will do so,” he said.

Mr Trump also appeared to moderate his words on Wednesday morning, following international concern and accusations by domestic critics that he had indulged in “reckless rhetoric”.

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

A New York Times report on Wednesday suggested Mr Trump had “improvised” during his “fire and fury” comments and had not discussed such language with his advisers beforehand.

Minister for Justice and Equality* Charlie Flanagan said the threats being traded by the US and North Korea were “entirely unhelpful”.

“It is important that the current language be scaled down and that the current threat be weakened,” he said. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017

*This article was edited on August 11th, 2017