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Trump Administration Sends Mixed Messages On North Korea


Locked and loaded - that's how President Trump described the U.S. military solutions for dealing with North Korea. He also held out hope that the tensions won't reach that point. Trump met this evening with his top diplomats at his private golf resort in New Jersey. NPR's Scott Horsley has more.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Trump's stark warning for North Korea came in a tweet this morning. He cautioned if that country should act unwisely, military solutions are now fully in place. This continues a series of toughly worded messages from the president urging North Korea's leader not to test the U.S. resolve.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And if he utters one threat in the form of an overt threat, which, by the way, he has been uttering for years and his family has been uttering for years - or if he does anything with respect to Guam or any place else that's an American territory or an American ally, he will truly regret it. And he will regret it fast.

HORSLEY: Nuance has never been this president's style. His political rivals have already learned crossing Trump invites counterattack. But the scorched-earth rhetoric is potentially alarming when it carries the prospect of actual scorched earth. White House adviser Sebastian Gorka told the BBC this week Trump's fire-and-fury messages must be taken seriously. Defense Secretary James Mattis was more circumspect, though, when he was asked about the president's saber rattling. Mattis paused for a long moment Thursday before discussing the possibility of nuclear confrontation.


JAMES MATTIS: My mission, my responsibility is to have military options should they be needed.

HORSLEY: But Mattis went on to stress that diplomatic solutions must be exhausted first.


MATTIS: Right now Secretary Tillerson and Ambassador Haley - you can see the American effort is diplomatically led. It has diplomatic traction. It is gaining diplomatic results.

HORSLEY: Last weekend, the U.N. Security Council unanimously agreed to tough, new sanctions on North Korea. And despite Trump's public bluster, the U.S. has reportedly been carrying on quiet, back-channel negotiations with North Korea through that country's U.N. representatives. The president met this evening with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley to discuss their diplomatic efforts.


TRUMP: Hopefully it'll all work out, OK? Nobody loves a peaceful solution better than President Trump. That, I can tell you.

HORSLEY: Tillerson, who's just back from a series of meetings with allies in Asia, says there's no disconnect between that sentiment and the president's tough talk about possible military action.


REX TILLERSON: I think what the president's doing is trying to support our efforts by ensuring North Korea understands what the stakes are.

HORSLEY: It's possible Trump's warnings about military action are intended not only for North Korea but also China, the country with the most economic leverage to influence Pyongyang's behavior. Foreign-policy experts caution, though, the increasingly bellicose rhetoric from both Trump and North Korean President Kim Jong Un runs the risk that the two countries could stumble into actual conflict. Secretary Mattis, the former general whose nickname is Mad Dog, sounded cautious this week when he warned war with North Korea would be catastrophic. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
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