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WHITE HOUSE — U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday issued a stark warning to North Korea, saying it “best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
Trump, speaking to reporters at his private golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, accused North Korean leader Kim Jong Un of having been “very threatening.” Trump then repeated his warning that the impoverished country faced “fire, fury and frankly power the likes of which the world has never seen before.”
The president’s remarks came hours after several media reports said the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency concluded last month that North Korea had successfully built a miniaturized nuclear warhead it could fit inside its missiles.
Other experts have said in recent months that such an advancement by Pyongyang, in its pursuit to become the world’s ninth full-fledged nuclear power, was probably years away.
The Washington Post quoted the defense agency’s assessment that “North Korea has produced nuclear weapons for ballistic missile delivery, to include delivery” by intercontinental ballistic missiles. North Korea has said in recent days that the ICBM it tested in a launch last month was capable of hitting the U.S. mainland, an advance it had not previously claimed.
Trump’s forceful language Tuesday, rivaling that frequently heard from Pyongyang, is certain to prompt concern that war could resume on the Korean Peninsula, where three years of combat in the early 1950s ended in stalemate.
“What the last 60 years, since the Korean War ended in an armistice, has shown is that a war of words does not translate into real war,” said Balbina Hwang, a Georgetown University adjunct assistant professor. “The increase in rhetoric does raise existing tensions, but it does not translate into a shift of U.S. policy or strategy on North Korea.”
“I think a number of observers’ fear on this issue, and on a number of issues in this administration, is that perhaps there wasn’t a careful consideration of the words of our commander in chief in this instance,” said David Pressman, a former deputy U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. “If ever there was a topic on which we need to be extremely precise, it’s nuclear proliferation when dealing with someone who is as unpredictable as Kim Jong Un.”
It is not known whether North Korea has tested a smaller nuclear warhead, although it said last year that it had. After one successful long-range missile test in July, state media declared North Korea as a “proud nuclear state” with an ICBM rocket “that can now target anywhere in the world.”
Media reports Tuesday, referencing the DIA report, said the intelligence agency concluded Pyongyang had now amassed 60 nuclear weapons, although some experts think the number is smaller, perhaps half that.
“The U.S. government has not been able to have reliable, confirmable, accurate intelligence about North Korean military assets for decades, so it’s all speculation,” Hwang, a former U.S. State Department adviser on North Korea, told VOA. “It could possibly be true or not necessarily accurate.”
The United States early last year concluded that Pyongyang was struggling to build intercontinental ballistic missiles, but even then assumed that it would eventually be able to produce them and have nuclear-armed missiles capable of reaching all of its adversaries.
The DIA’s reported conclusion comes as the United States and other world powers have focused new attention on North Korea’s military ambitions. The U.N. Security Council unanimously imposed new sanctions on Pyongyang on Sunday in an effort to cut $1 billion of its $3 billion in annual export income.
Trump, earlier Tuesday on Twitter, commended the international community for confronting North Korea over its nuclear weapons development, even as his U.N. envoy said she was skeptical that the latest sanctions would deter Pyongyang.
Trump, on what he calls a working vacation at his resort in New Jersey, said in a Twitter comment, “After many years of failure, countries are coming together to finally address the dangers posed by North Korea. We must be tough & decisive!”
But U.S. Representative Eliot Engel of New York, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Trump pushed too far with his “fire and fury” comment.
“President Trump has again undermined American credibility by drawing an absurd red line,” he said. “North Korea is a real threat, but the president’s unhinged reaction suggests he might consider using American nuclear weapons in response to a nasty comment from a North Korean despot.”
‘Very strong message’
Trump’s U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, told NBC’s Today program that the newest U.N. sanctions were not “going to stop our North Korea problem.” Nonetheless, she said the penalties would “send a very strong message.”
She reiterated Trump “has said all options are on the table,” including an armed strike to thwart the North Korean threat — Pyongyang’s claim that its missiles can now reach the U.S. mainland.
“We’ll do whatever it takes to counter North Korea,” she said.
As for North Korea’s Kim, Haley said, “He has to decide if he strikes the United States, is that something he can win?”
North Korea vowed Monday to persist in its nuclear weapons development program, rejecting calls from the international community to rein in its aggressive military actions.
North Korea told a security conference of key regional leaders in Manila that it would never bargain away its development of nuclear weapons or ballistic missiles, and said that it would teach the United States a “severe lesson” with nuclear strategic force if Washington launched an attack against it.
VOA’s Margaret Besheer at the United Nations contributed to this report.