Tillerson Downplays N. Korean Threat to Guam

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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says he doesn’t believe there is any imminent threat from North Korea to the Pacific island of Guam, despite Pyongyang’s claim that it is examining its plan for “making an enveloping fire” around the U.S. territory.

Tillerson spoke to reporters while flying to Guam Wednesday, after a day of heated rhetoric between Washington and Pyongyang. The U.S. Secretary of State was on the island on a refueling stop following a visit to Asia.

U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday issued a stark warning to North Korea, saying if Pyongyang continues its threats against the United States, “they will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

Trump: Pyongyang ‘Best Not Make Any More Threats’

“I think the president, what the president is doing is sending a strong message to North Korea in language that Kim Jong Un would understand, because he doesn’t seem to understand diplomatic language,” Tillerson said.

“I think the president just wanted to be clear to the North Korean regime that the U.S. has unquestionable ability to defend itself, will defend itself and its allies, and i think it was important that he deliver that message to avoid any miscalculation on their part.”

Guam threat

In the statement issued early Wednesday in Asia, the North’s Korean Central News Agency said its armed forces were “carefully examining” a plan for missile strikes on Guam. American military bases on the U.S. Pacific island territory are believed to hold the largest U.S. arsenal of nuclear weapons outside the continental United States.

A spokesman for North Korea’s army was quoted as saying the strike plan will be “put into practice in a multi-current and consecutive way any moment,” once an order is given by Kim Jong Un.

Guam Governor Eddie Calvo said there was no threat to the island, but also said it was “prepared for any eventuality” in a televised speech.Governor Calvo said “Guam is American soil…not just a military installation,” and was assured by the White House that an attack on Guam would be considered an attack on the United States.

Earlier Tuesday U.S. media outlets reported the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency has concluded that North Korea recently succeeded in building a miniaturized nuclear warhead, small enough to fit in the intercontinental ballistic missiles Pyongyang recently has test-fired.

The North has threatened nuclear war with the United States in the past in response to United Nations sanctions over its nuclear tests. On Saturday, the U.N. Security Council voted 15-0 on new sanctions is seen as an effort to cut back Pyongyang’s export income by one-third – from $3 billion to $2 billion per year.

Pyongyang has described the U.N. sanctions resolution as a “flagrant infringement” of its sovereignty.

War fears grow

Trump’s forceful language on Tuesday, and Pyongyang’s vociferous response, revived concerns about renewed war 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,” says 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.”

Jon Wolfsthal,a former National Security Council official in President Barack Obama’s administration, warned in a tweet late Tuesday: “We are closer to nuclear use now than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis. We need the president to stabilize, not disrupt.”

Media reports on Tuesday that referenced the DIA report said U.S. analysts have concluded that Pyongyang has now amassed 60 nuclear weapons, although some experts think the number is smaller, perhaps only half as many.

“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 concluded early last year that Pyongyang was struggling to build intercontinental ballistic missiles, but that it would eventually be able to produce them and have nuclear-armed rockets capable of targeting all adversaries.

VOA’s United Nations Correspondent Margaret Besheer contributed to this report

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