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Tillerson And Mattis Host Japanese Counterparts Amid Rising Tensions With North Korea


President Trump's cabinet secretaries say their strategy on North Korea is simple - international pressure backed by a credible threat of force to get North Korea back to the negotiating table. So it was strange to read the comments of a top White House aide undermining the credibility of that threat of force. NPR's Michele Kelemen has more on the muddled messaging.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis spent the day with their Japanese counterparts to reinforce their alliance in the face of the North Korean nuclear and missile threat. Tillerson describes U.S. strategy as a concerted, deliberate pressure campaign to ultimately get to a diplomatic solution.


REX TILLERSON: Obviously any diplomatic effort in any situation where you have this level of threat that we're confronted with, a threat of proportions that none of us like to contemplate, has to be backed by a strong military consequence if North Korea chooses wrongly.

KELEMEN: White House strategist Steve Bannon seemed to undercut that message in an interview with American Prospect. He said, according to a transcript, that, quote, "until someone shows me that 10 million people in Seoul don't die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, there's no military solution." They've got us, he added. He was referring to the fact that North Korea has thousands of conventional weapons in firing range of South Korea's capital, Seoul. Tillerson said he read Bannon's comments, but he seemed to dismiss them.


TILLERSON: Our approach has been endorsed by the president. It is reviewed with him periodically in terms of the status of how the approach is working.

KELEMEN: Defense Secretary Jim Mattis weighed in as well.


JAMES MATTIS: I can just assure you that in close collaboration with our allies, there are strong military consequences if DPRK initiates hostilities.

KELEMEN: Mattis chose his words carefully, stressing America's defense capabilities. Japanese officials say they're boosting their investment in that. The U.S. is also preparing to hold annual exercises in South Korea next week. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is sounding nervous about all of this.


ANTONIO GUTERRES: As tensions rise, so does the risk of misunderstanding, miscalculation or escalation. And that is why it is so important to dial down rhetoric and to dial up diplomacy.

KELEMEN: He says the U.N. is ready to help revive so-called six-party talks. Tillerson has said he doesn't want to negotiate his way back to the negotiating table, and he's waiting to see if North Korea is serious about the end goal - a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF EVIL NEEDLE'S "THE GROOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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