On a day typically remembered for the devastating atomic attack on Nagasaki in 1945, nuclear-armed North Korea and U.S. President Donald Trump both unleashed an unprecedented verbal barrage, with Trump threatening the North with “fire and fury like the world has never seen” and the North’s military claiming it is finalizing plans for attacking the U.S. territory of Guam.
The heated rhetoric came after Trump was asked about a report suggesting that Pyongyang had cleared one of the final hurdles to being able to strike the U.S. with a nuclear-tipped missile.
“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen,” Trump said Tuesday in remarks widely broadcast from his golf resort in Bedminster, New Jersey, as Japan marked the 72nd anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombing of Nagasaki.
Trump said North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “has been very threatening beyond a normal state. And as I said, they will be met with fire, fury and, frankly, power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.”
The startling remarks, which did not appear to be spontaneous, echoed U.S. President Harry Truman’s announcement on Aug. 6, 1945, that the United States had dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Truman warned in that announcement of “a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this Earth.”
It was unclear if Trump had consulted with Tokyo or Seoul before making his statement.
The Kim regime has made immense strides in its nuclear and weapons programs in recent months, including two apparently successful launches last month of an intercontinental ballistic missile. It believes that having a credible nuclear deterrent is its only guarantee of staving off U.S. invasion.
The Washington Post, citing a confidential U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency assessment, reported Tuesday that the North has now mastered one of the final steps in being able to build a credible nuclear deterrent: miniaturizing a nuclear warhead that can fit inside its missiles.
The Post report also said the assessment had estimated that Pyongyang could have up to 60 nuclear weapons.
On Wednesday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Tokyo was “gravely concerned” and will continue to gather and analyze the situation, reiterating that Japan welcomed the Trump administration keeping all options — including military action — “on the table.”
Just hours after Trump’s remarks, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency, quoting a spokesman for the country’s missile forces, said it was “carefully examining” plans for a strike on Guam, home to U.S. military facilities and a popular destination for Japanese tourists.
“The KPA (Korean People’s Army) Strategic Force is now carefully examining the operational plan for making an enveloping fire at the areas around Guam . . . in order to contain the U.S. major military bases on Guam, including the Anderson Air Force Base,” the spokesman was quoted as saying Wednesday.
U.S. bomber flights over South Korea are typically flown out of the air base on Guam, some 3,400 km (2,100 miles) from the Korean Peninsula, but experts said it was highly unlikely that the North would put its revered leadership at risk by attacking Guam.
The spokesman said the plan had been crafted after “frequent visits to the sky above South Korea” by U.S. strategic bombers in recent months, “which get on the nerves of the DPRK,” as well as a U.S. test this month of a Minuteman III ICBM.
Such a plan, which the report said was recommended by Kim, would “send a serious warning signal to the U.S.”
The report added that the plan would be examined and, once complete, “will be put into practice . . . once Kim Jong Un, supreme commander of the nuclear force of the DPRK, makes a decision.”
DPRK is the acronym for the North’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
“The execution of this plan will offer an occasion for the Yankees to be the first to experience the might of the strategic weapons of the DPRK,” the report said.
While the announcement of the strike plan was rare for its detail, it was not the first time that the North has threatened to attack the base on Guam. As recently as last year, as well as in 2013, Pyongyang vowed to target Andersen.
Also Wednesday, the U.S. Pacific Air Forces said two B-1B bombers from Guam had joined their counterparts from the South Korean Air Force and Air Self-Defense Force in “sequenced bilateral missions” a day earlier.
The B-1Bs first flew into Japanese airspace, where they were joined by ASDF F-2 fighter jets, and then flew over the Korean Peninsula, where the bombers were joined by South Korean F-15 fighters, the U.S. Pacific Air Forces said in a statement. The B-1Bs then performed a pass over the Pilsung Range before leaving South Korean airspace and returning to Guam.
“How we train is how we fight, and the more we interface with our allies, the better prepared we are to fight tonight,” the statement quoted a B-1B pilot as saying.
In the KCNA dispatch, the North alluded to the bomber flight, blasting “the air pirates of Guam” for appearing “in the sky above South Korea to stage a mad-cap drill simulating an actual war.”
In August 2016, the U.S. Air Force deployed all three of its strategic bomber types to the island, announcing that B-1Bs, B-52s and B-2 stealth bombers had been operating simultaneously in the region for the first time.
On July 30, U.S. B-1Bs flying from Guam linked up with ASDF and South Korean fighter jets in a display of the allies’ ability to project “overwhelming force” after North Korea’s second successful test of an ICBM.
Earlier that month, it sent two B-1B bombers from Guam to buzz the Korean Peninsula and train with the two allied air forces following the North’s first ICBM test.
Japan’s Defense Ministry said in its annual white paper released Tuesday that the North had made “significant headway” in its nuclear arms development, citing its “possible” ability to develop miniaturized nuclear warheads.
Asked about The Post report, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said Wednesday that threats posed by the North had “reached the level at which we have to remain vigilant about and properly monitor whether it already possesses (such a warhead) or will soon do so.”
A high-raking Foreign Ministry official, however, said that despite the apparent nuclear breakthrough, Tokyo will continue to maintain its policy that now is the time for pressure, not dialogue.
“Nothing has changed about Japan being in the pressure-boosting phase,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
The Pentagon refused to comment on the latest reports but reiterated in an email that the U.S. is committed to defending South Korea and Japan and seeks “only the peaceful denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
North Korea test-fired its second intercontinental ballistic missile in less than a month in late July, with experts concluding that the launch flew higher and longer than the first and now puts a large chunk of the United States — including Chicago and Los Angeles — within range of Pyongyang’s ever-improving weapons systems.
But beyond its grander ambitions of being able to strike the U.S. with a nuclear-armed missile, North Korea has also shown off its ability to strike South Korea with conventional artillery and hit Japan with its shorter-range missiles. Tens of thousands of U.S. troops are stationed in both countries.
In March, the North conducted a missile drill that it said was a rehearsal for striking U.S. military bases in Japan, and in recent months it has repeatedly launched missiles that have fallen into Japan’s exclusive economic zone in the Sea of Japan.
Van Jackson, a senior lecturer in international relations at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, called the U.S. leader’s latest remarks “strategically irresponsible,” noting that they had put confidence in the America’s alliances with Japan and South Korea at risk.
“Either Trump is full of bluster, in which case he erodes U.S. deterrence in (South) Korea by weakening the credibility of U.S. threats, or he’s signaling an intention to ratchet up competition, which leads us toward an inevitable conflict spiral,” said Jackson, who is an expert on North Korea and formerly was a policy adviser in the U.S. office of the secretary of defense.
Nevertheless, he said, “It would be very difficult to get off the American-ally train” for Japan and South Korea in the event of a looming conflict.
“(Prime Minister Shinzo) Abe and (South Korean President) Moon (Jae-in) are both in a position where they need the U.S., but where each should also be quite worried,” Jackson said.
Staff writers Reiji Yoshida and Tomohiro Osaki contributed to this report