By Anna Fifield,
TOKYO — North Korea hit out at President Trump Friday, accusing him “making trouble” with his “aggressive” tweets, amid concerns that tensions between the two countries could escalate into military action.
Tensions have been steadily mounting in recent weeks, as North Korea prepares for what it is calling a “big” event to mark the anniversary of the founder’s birthday Saturday, and the Trump administration warns all options are on the table.
Expectations for a nuclear test or missile launch in the lead-up to Saturday’s celebrations in Pyongyang have not come to pass. Instead, there are signs that the regime is getting ready to hold a huge parade this weekend, perhaps showing off new missiles — something that would qualify as the “big” event it had heralded.
The U.S. has sent an aircraft carrier strike group to the Korean Peninsula region, and Trump has repeatedly tweeted that if China won’t use its leverage to rein in North Korea, the United States will act.
Vice President Pence arrives in Seoul Sunday on the first leg of an Asia tour, and will doubtless reiterate the U.S.’s strong alliances with South Korea and Japan and their determination to stop North Korea’s nuclear program.
But North Korea’s vice foreign minister said that Trump was “becoming more vicious and more aggressive” than previous presidents, which was only making matters worse.
“Trump is always making provocations with his aggressive words,” Han Song Ryol told the Associated Press in an interview in Pyongyang. “So that’s why. It’s not the DPRK but the U.S. and Trump that makes trouble,” he said, using the official abbreviation for North Korea.
Han also repeated the regime’s common refrain that North Korea was ready to act to defend itself.
“We’ve got a powerful nuclear deterrent already in our hands, and we certainly will not keep our arms crossed in the face of a U.S. pre-emptive strike,” Han told the AP.
As for when the next nuclear test would take place, he said “that is something that our headquarters decides.”
His message chimed with a statement from North Korea’s Institute for Disarmament and Peace published Friday, that it was the U.S. pushing the Korean Peninsula, “the world’s biggest hotspot,” to the brink of war by bringing back a naval strike group.
“This has created a dangerous situation in which a thermonuclear war may break out any moment on the peninsula and pose a serious threat to the world’s peace and security,” the statement said.
North Korea has a habit of fueling tensions to increase the rewards they might extract from the outside world if it desists. Previously, North Korea has agreed to return to denuclearization talks in return for aid or the easing of sanctions.
Trump is tearing up that old playbook, analysts say.
“This approach to North Korea is relatively new,” said James Kim of the Asan Institute of Policy Studies in Seoul. “The approach in the past has been very calculated.”
That has gone out the window with talk about military options, he said. “We always knew all these options were there but no one was bold enough to go down that path. It’s a new approach.”
Some in Beijing are noting the difference too.
“It should be noted that there is a personality difference between Trump and Obama,” the Global Times newspaper, which doesn’t reflect government policy but often reflects a strain of thinking within the Communist party, wrote Friday.
“Trump is also willing to show he is different. Bombing Syria helps him to show that,” it continued, while noting that he was far from “revolutionary” because he dispatched only missiles, not troops.
But North Korea could prove different if it calls Trump’s bluff and conducts another nuclear test, it said. “Trump just took the office, if he loses to Pyongyang, he would feel like he had lost some prestige.”
Right now, Trump has some cards to play, said Kim of the Asan Institute.
“He might say: ‘If you want one less battleship in the region, what are you going to give me?’” he said, in a reversal from the usual situation where North Korea asks what it can get from its adversaries in return for changing its behavior.
Amid these tensions, reports of impending military action have been swirling.
NBC News, citing intelligence officials, reported Thursday that the U.S. was ready to launch a pre-emptive strike if North Korea appeared to be about to conduct a nuclear test.
But a defense official said this was “speculative” and analysts said they highly doubted that the U.S. would take such action, describing a situation where tougher sanctions and tougher implementation remained the best remedy.
Trump’s tweets and his conversations with Chinese President Xi Jinping, seem designed to push Beijing to crack down on North Korea, and there have been some indications that China is getting tougher on its errant neighbor.
China banned coal imports from North Korea in mid-February — potentially cutting off an economic lifeline — and Chinese customs data released Thursday showed 52 percent drop in imports in the first three months of this year, compared with the same period last year.
Meanwhile, the Japanese government is taking precautions of its own.
The National Security Council has discussed how to evacuate the 60,000-odd Japanese nationals living in South Korea and how to deal with a potential influx of North Koreans, according to multiple local reports. These plans include sifting out spies or soldiers who might be among the refugees.
The North Korean situation is getting more serious, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Friday. “We cannot turn away from this reality. The security environment surrounding Japan is getting tougher.”
Jin Xin in Beijing and Missy Ryan in Washington contributed reporting.