After President Trump condemned North Korea's "hostile and dangerous" actions this morning, hours after the rogue state's 6th nuclear test, and according to the Kim regime first test of a hydrogen bomb, the press wanted to know one thing: will the US attack North Korea? "We'll see," Trump responded, leaving church when a press pooler shouted a question about if he plans to attack North Korea. Earlier, commenting on Twitter, Trump called the country "a rogue nation which has become a great threat and embarrassment to China, which is trying to help but with little success", although that statement too failed to provide clarity into what the next tactical step could be.
As reported shortly after midnight ET, the latest North Korean provocation reinforced the danger facing America, Trump had said earlier in a series of tweets, adding that "talk of appeasement" is pointless. "They only understand one thing!" Trump wrote, without elaboration, as he prepared to meet later with his national security team. It was the first nuclear test since Trump took office in January.
The precise strength of the explosion, described by state-controlled media in North Korea as a hydrogen bomb, has yet to be determined. According to the AP, South Korea's weather agency said the artificial earthquake caused by the explosion was five times to six times stronger than tremors generated by the North's previous five such tests. The impact reportedly shook buildings in China and in Russia.
And while Trump decides to what the proper course of action is, his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was busy calling counterparts in Asia, while Steven Mnuchin, said he was putting together proposed new sanctions for Trump to consider that would seek to cut off trade with North Korea, although as we said earlier, it's unclear what kind of penalties might make a difference. Lassina Zerbo, head of the U.N. test ban treaty organization agreed, saying that sanctions already imposed against North Korea aren't working.
Last month, Trump warned that the U.S. military was "locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely" and that the U.S. would unleash "fire and fury" on the North if it continued to threaten America. The bellicose words followed threats from North Korea to launch ballistic missiles toward the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam, intending to create "enveloping fire" near the military hub that's home to U.S. bombers. So far, Kim has called Trump's bluff every single time, without any retaliation besides just more jawboning by the US president, which considering a direct response by N. Korea to a US attack could result in millions of dead South Koreans, is probably not the worst outcome.
Meanwhile, as Trump lashed out at North Korea on twitter this morning, while China remains by far the North's biggest trading partner, Trump appeared to be more critical of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has attempted to reach out to the North. To that point, the WSJ reported yesterday that the White House was weighing withdrawing from a five-year-old bilateral trade pact known as KORUS, with a decision set to come as soon as this coming week, according to people familiar with the matter
"South Korea is finding, as I have told them, that their talk of appeasement with North Korea will not work, they only understand one thing!" Trump said.
Shortly after noon ET, Trump underscored the threat of trade war involving both South Korea and China, when he tweeted "The United States is considering, in addition to other options, stopping all trade with any country doing business with North Korea."
The United States is considering, in addition to other options, stopping all trade with any country doing business with North Korea.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 3, 2017
He also said that he will be meeting "General Kelly, General Mattis and other military leaders at the White House to discuss North Korea. Thank you."
I will be meeting General Kelly, General Mattis and other military leaders at the White House to discuss North Korea. Thank you.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 3, 2017
Meanwhile, China's Xinhua News Agency said President Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, meeting on the sidelines of a Beijing-led economic summit, agreed "to adhere to the goal of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, have close communication and coordination and properly respond" to the test.
While leaders of superpowers were moving slowly, regional concerns were at breaking point: South Korea held a National Security Council meeting chaired by Moon. Officials in Seoul said Trump's national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, spoke with his South Korean counterpart for 20 minutes about an hour after the detonation. Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called the test "absolutely unacceptable."
Nuclear tests are crucial to perfecting sophisticated technologies and to demonstrating to the world that claims of nuclear prowess are not merely a bluff. The North claimed the device it tested was a thermonuclear weapon, also known as a hydrogen bomb. That could be hard to independently confirm. It said the underground test site did not leak radioactive materials, which would make such a determination even harder.
At the same time, the simple power of the blast was convincing. Japan's Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said it might have been as powerful as 70 kilotons. North Korea's previous largest was thought to be anywhere from 10 to 30 kilotons. "We cannot deny it was an H-bomb test," Onodera said.
Even before this morning's H-bomb test, the AP reported that Japan was debating whether to develop a limited pre-emptive strike capability and buy cruise missiles, ideas that were anathema in the pacifist country before the North Korea missile threat. With revisions to Japan's defense plans underway, ruling party hawks are accelerating the moves, and some defense experts say Japan should at least consider them.
After being on the backburner in the ruling party for decades, a possibility of pre-emptive strike was formally proposed to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe by his party's missile defense panel in March, prompting parliamentary debate, though somewhat lost steam as Abe apparently avoided the divisive topic after seeing support ratings for his scandal-laden government plunge.
"Should we possess pre-emptive strike capability?" liberal-leaning Mainichi newspaper asked the following day. "But isn't it too reckless to jump to discuss a 'get them before they get you' approach?"
Following the latest, most powerful nuclear test, Japan's resolve for a preemptive strike will only strengthen further.
Meanwhile, more is likely to come from North Korea. Just before Sunday's test, according to state media, Kim and the other senior leaders at the party presidium meeting discussed "detailed ways and measures for containing the U.S. and other hostile forces' vicious moves for sanctions." The photos released earlier showed Kim talking with his lieutenants as he observed a silver, peanut-shaped device that the state-run media said was designed to be mounted on the North's "Hwasong-14" ICBM. The North claims the device was made domestically and has explosive power that can range from tens to hundreds of kilotons. For context, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima by the U.S. had a 15-kiloton yield.
Of course, the biggest concern to date is that not only are options to pressure Pyongyang limited, but the Kim regime seems to be growing more bold with every unanswered provocation. Further economic and trade sanctions, increased diplomatic pressure and boosting military maneuvers or shows of force would likely all be on the table. Which is why we expect that following today's meeting between Trump and Kelly, General and "other military leaders", the sequence of events involing US military intervention in North Korea will finally start to move.