A U.S. Air Force soldier, center, speaks on the phone during the Max Thunder Air Exercise, a bilateral training exercise between the South Korean and U.S. Air Force, at a U.S. air base in Gunsan, South Korea. (Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg)

Trump Warns of `Major Conflict' If Talks on North Korea Fail

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump said a “major conflict” with North Korea was possible if diplomatic solutions fail, although Senator John McCain said the U.S. leader understood that military action was a last resort.

“There is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea. Absolutely,” Trump said in an interview with Reuters. “We’d love to solve things diplomatically, but it’s very difficult.” He praised President Xi Jinping for pressing North Korea -- China’s neighbor and ally -- saying the Chinese leader was “trying very hard.”

Trump also ruffled feathers with South Korea in the interview by saying the country should pay for a missile-defense system being installed on its soil, and threatening to scrap a bilateral trade deal.

He spoke after U.S. national security leaders this week emphasized economic sanctions and diplomacy to persuade North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. At the same time, the U.S. is boosting its military presence with an aircraft carrier battle group and submarine as it leaves open the option of striking first against Kim Jong Un’s regime.

“For the time being, the U.S. government is bluffing,” said Andrei Lankov, a history professor at Kookmin University in Seoul. “They are essentially doing what the North Koreans have been doing for decades -- saber-rattling and chest beating. The major target is not North Korea but China.”

Lankov said the Trump administration wanted to convince the Chinese they faced the choice between full-blown war or undermining the North Korean economy, which might lead to unrest. “Trump has learned how to play games from Kim Jong Un,” he said.

‘Last Option’

McCain, a former Republican presidential nominee who has been critical of Trump on some international issues, told Bloomberg that Trump was aware of the risks of a preemptive strike on North Korea. He cited the likelihood of a retaliatory artillery attack on the South Korean capital.

“I hope there’s a lot more to go before we have a preemptive strike,” McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, said after the U.S.’s top Pacific commander, Admiral Harry Harris, testified before the panel. “They are exploring every option and the last option -- and the least desirable option -- is armed conflict.”

A White House briefing for the entire Senate earlier in the week didn’t provide any additional details about the North Korea situation than what has been publicly reported, Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon told MSNBC Friday.

“What they’re doing is beating the war drum and then trying to convert that into China applying pressure to end the nuclear program in North Korea,” Merkley said.

Pressing Peace

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters Friday that dialogue and consultation were the only ways to resolve the nuclear issue on the Korea Peninsula. “Solving the issue peacefully is also something all related parties have in common,” Geng said at a briefing in Beijing.

Trump said he informed South Korea that it would be “appropriate if they paid” for the “billion-dollar” Thaad missile shield designed to intercept any attack from North Korea. South Korea’s defense ministry responded in a statement that it will only provide land and facilities for the deployment and operation of the system as agreed.

U.S. forces transported equipment to the site of the Thaad battery in southeastern Korea this week amid protests from local residents. The shield may be at least partially operational within days.

Merkley said that “it seems completely the wrong moment” for Trump to be discussing scrapping a trade deal with South Korea and asking that nation to pay for the missile system.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will discuss North Korea with his counterparts at the United Nations Security Council in New York on Friday. Tillerson told Fox News that China had warned Kim’s regime it would impose further sanctions if it conducted a sixth nuclear test.

China “confirmed to us that they had requested the regime conduct no further nuclear test,” Tillerson said. “We were told by the Chinese that they informed the regime that if they did conduct a further nuclear test, China would be taking sanctions actions on their own.”

‘Not Easy’

Geng, the foreign ministry spokesman, deflected questions about Tillerson’s comments, saying that China’s opposition to nuclear tests was spelled out in the Security Council decisions it backed. China banned coal imports from North Korea this year and the Global Times, a nationalist newspaper affiliated with Communist Party, warned earlier this month that another nuclear test might prompt oil curbs. 

“As the situation in the Korean peninsula worsens, ties between the two countries may further deteriorate,” the Global Times said in an editorial Friday. “China should ready itself for unfriendly activities by North Korea.”

Tillerson reiterated the Trump administration wants to change North Korea’s perception that it needs nuclear weapons to ensure its survival. “We have been very clear we do not seek regime change in North Korea,” he said.

Asked whether he thought Kim was rational, Trump said he hoped so.

“He’s 27 years old. His father dies, took over a regime. So say what you want, but that is not easy, especially at that age,” Trump told Reuters. “I’m not giving him credit or not giving him credit, I’m just saying that’s a very hard thing to do.”