President Trump starkly warned North Korea to stop making nuclear threats Tuesday in the kind of bellicose rhetoric usually associated with the rulers in Pyongyang, twice declaring, “They will be met with the fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
The president’s dramatic threat of annihilation raised fresh fears of a confrontation with North Korea, which successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile last month for the first time, and which has vowed to defend itself with nuclear weapons if necessary.
Trump’s startling comments followed a new U.S. intelligence assessment indicating that North Korea has developed a warhead design that could fit atop an ICBM. The report hardens previous classified assessments that date back to 2013, and reflects growing U.S. confidence that Pyongyang had achieved this milestone after years of uncertainty.
U.S. officials caution that North Korea still has not developed a nuclear warhead capable of surviving the intense heat, vibration and pressure of an ICBM’s fiery reentry into the atmosphere, but that step appears increasingly likely.
Trump spoke to reporters from the clubhouse of his golf resort in Bedminster, N.J., where he is on what the White House calls a 17-day working vacation. His comments came a day after North Korean state media issued a typical anti-U.S. broadside, saying Pyongyang “will make the U.S. pay dearly for [its] heinous crimes.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson this week offered to resume negotiations with the isolated government in Pyongyang if it would stop ballistic missile tests, but Trump clearly decided to add a powerful stick to that carrot.
“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” he said. “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
He added that North Korean leader Kim Jung Un “has been very threatening beyond a normal state. And as I have said, they will be met with fire, fury, and frankly power, the likes of which the world has never seen before.”
Trump’s rhetoric in many ways mirrors his North Korean counterpart’s with its muscularity. But it also is in line with the president’s blunt style.
Washington was rattled when North Korea tested its first two ICBMs last month, with the second judged powerful enough to conceivably reach California and beyond. It crashed into the Sea of Japan, apparently on target.
A Defense Intelligence Agency report dated that same day, July 28, also rang alarms because it assessed that Pyongyang is now capable of producing so-called miniaturized nuclear warheads — about the size of an outdoor garbage can — to fit atop an ICBM, a critical step in the nation’s decadelong march to develop a nuclear strike force, U.S. officials said.
The report, which was first disclosed by the Washington Post, also assessed that North Korea has stockpiled as many as 60 nuclear weapons, although outside analysis says the arsenal is much smaller, probably fewer than 20.
David Albright, a former United Nations nuclear inspector, said Pyongyang may have succeeded in building a warhead small enough to fit atop a missile, but he doubts it has mastered the technical challenges of launching it on an ICBM to carry out an attack.
North Korea is not known to have developed a reentry vehicle, which carries the warhead atop the ICBM, that can survive the intense heat, pressure and vibration as it reenters the atmosphere from space, he said.
Nor have North Korean tests demonstrated the ability to hit a target like a city with precision, he said.
“I’m skeptical they’re there,” Albright said. “They could put a warhead on it, but it’s very likely it would not survive reentry or hit its target.”
In North Korea’s tests of intermediate range missiles, the reentry vehicles do not appear to have survived, said Albright, who heads a Washington proliferation research organization called the Institute for Science and International Security.
Albright also has said he is doubtful that North Korea had produced 60 nuclear warheads.
“I believe that North Korea has had a design for a miniaturized nuclear warhead that would fit on a ICBM class missile for some time now,” said Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., a former U.S. government expert on North Korea who now works for 38 North, a private group that focuses on the country. “We just don’t know how reliable it is.”
He added, “All they have demonstrated is the ability to launch a missile and have it come down with a reasonable degree of accuracy” in the sea between the Korean peninsula and Japan.