New Zealand’s premier admonished him for remarks “not helpful” in a “very tense” environment. Australia’s prime minister said “maximum economic pressure” was the only way to deal with North Korea. In Japan, where Nagasaki was marking the 72nd anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombing of the city, Mayor Tomihisa Taue said anxiety was spreading “that in the not too distant future these weapons could be used again.”
A day after President Trump vowed to respond to North Korea “with fire and fury” if Pyongyang continued to threaten the U.S militarily, many world leaders have yet to weigh in on Trump’s comments. However, those that have appear to view the president’s rhetoric as more likely to escalate the situation than to settle it.
“Everyone wants to avoid military confrontation, and the path ahead there is for North Korea to comply with UN sanctions and for international pressure to push them in that direction,” New Zealand’s leader Bill English told his country’s media Wednesday.
In Australia, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull also expressed concern with Trump’s use of language. “A conflict would be shattering. It would have catastrophic consequences. We all understand that,” he said. “The global community, led by the (UN) Security Council, including China and Russia, are all united in seeking to bring the maximum economic pressure on North Korea to bring them to their senses without conflict.”
In Japan, Taue used a speech to commemorate those killed by the world’s first atomic bombing — 140,000 people died in Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, and 70,000 more in Nagasaki three days later — to urge world leaders to abandon nuclear weapons.
His comments appeared to be aimed just as much at Trump and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un as at Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government for what Taue said were empty promises about working to achieve a nuclear-free world.
“The nuclear threat will not end as long as nations continue to claim that nuclear weapons are essential for their national security,” he said.
China’s foreign ministry appealed for calm and urged Pyongyang and Washington to refrain from using “any words or actions” that could further aggravate the situation. In Berlin, Ulrike Demmer, a spokeswoman for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government, said Germany wanted to avoid military escalation and to settle the conflict peacefully.
Trump pledged to unleash “fire and fury like the world has never seen” on North Korea after a Washington Post story Monday, citing U.S. intelligence officials and a confidential Defense Intelligence Agency report, that said North Korea may have mastered a technological hurdle needed to strike the U.S. with a nuclear missile. That was swiftly followed early Wednesday by a statement from North Korea’s army that said it was studying a plan to strike the U.S. territory of Guam with ballistic missiles.
North Korea said it would create an “enveloping fire” around the island in the western Pacific. Guam is about 2,100 miles southeast of North Korea’s capital Pyongyang and 3,800 miles west of Honolulu. North Korea has conducted five nuclear tests. The intelligence reports cited in the Post’s story indicate that North Korean scientists have figured out how to miniaturize a nuclear warhead. Whether it has determined how to deliver such a warhead to the U.S. mainland 6,000 miles away is a matter of dispute.
On Saturday, the UN Security Council imposed a new round of sanctions on North Korea for its continued defiance of a ban on testing missiles and nuclear bombs.
U.S. lawmakers from both parties criticized Trump’s comments, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who said he took “exception to the President’s comments because you’ve got to be sure that you can do what you say you’re going to do.”
Still, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Wednesday seemed to downplay speculation that the U.S. has moved closer to military action against North Korea, saying he doesn’t believe there is “any imminent threat” from North Korea, including to the U.S. territory of Guam. Tillerson said “Americans should sleep well at night” and should “have no concerns about this particular rhetoric of the last few days.” Tillerson spoke to reporters as he flew from Malaysia to Washington, stopping in Guam to refuel.
And Miha Hribernik, a senior Asia analyst at global risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft, said despite fears of an all-out war on the Korean Peninsula, the risk remains low.
“While Kim may have met his match in the equally strong-minded and straight talking Trump, we believe neither side is seeking to put words into action,” he said.
“North Korea continues to build its nuclear and ballistic missile arsenals as a credible deterrent and guarantee of regime survival, but knowing full well that their actual offensive use would spell the end of the Kim dynasty.”
Trump nevertheless appeared intent on keeping up the pressure on North Korea.
“My first order as President was to renovate and modernize our nuclear arsenal. It is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before,” he wrongly said in a tweet Wednesday. Trump’s first executive order, the day he took office on Jan. 20, was related to appealing the Affordable Care Act, according to the White House website. “Hopefully we will never have to use this power,” Trump added in a subsequent tweet.