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North Korea's Kim appears to ease rhetoric over Guam missile strike

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un watches a military drill marking the 85th anniversary of the establishment of the Korean People's Army (KPA) in this handout photo by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) made available on April 26, 2017. KCNA/Handout via REUTERS

TOKYO - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appeared to take a step back from the brink of nuclear war Tuesday, when state media reported that he would "watch a little more the foolish and stupid conduct of the Yankees."

But, as is often the case with North Korea, the message was mixed: Kim was inspecting the missile unit tasked with preparing to strike near Guam, and photos released by state media showed a large satellite image of Andersen Air Force Base on Guam on the screen beside the leader.

"The U.S. should stop at once arrogant provocations against the DPRK and unilateral demands and not provoke it any longer," the North Korean leader told his missile unit, according to a report from the state-run Korean Central News Agency published Tuesday.

If "the Yankees persist in their extremely dangerous reckless actions on the Korean peninsula and in its vicinity," Kim continued, North Korea would "make an important decision as it already declared," he said.

Kim was visiting the Strategic Force of the Korean People's Army, the elite missile unit that - according to state media - is finalizing preparations to launch ballistic missiles into the Pacific Ocean near the American territory of Guam. A decision was due this week, a week during which the Kim regime is celebrating the ruling family with huge propaganda displays in North Korea.

Kim "praised the KPA Strategic Force for drawing up a close and careful plan . . . and examined the firing preparations for power demonstration," the report said.

"He said that he wants to advise the U.S., which is driving the situation on the Korean peninsula into the touch-and-go situation, running helter-skelter, to take into full account gains and losses with clear head whether the prevailing situation is more unfavorable for any party," the report quoted Kim as saying.

This came just hours after the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told South Korean leaders Monday that the United States was ready to use the "full range" of its military capabilities to deal with North Korea.

But Gen. Joseph Dunford, speaking in Seoul, just 30 miles south of the border with North Korea, stressed that diplomacy and sanctions were the first plan of attack.

"The military dimension today is directly in support of that diplomatic and economic effort," Dunford told reporters after meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in Seoul.

"It would be a horrible thing were a war to be conducted here on the peninsula, and that's why we're so focused on coming up with a peaceful way ahead," he said, according to Stars and Stripes.

"Nobody's looking for war," the Marine general said, according to the newspaper. But he added that the military's job was to provide "viable military options in the event that deterrence fails."

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Monday afternoon in Washington that it will be "game on" with North Korea if it hits the United States, including Guam, but he left it much more ambiguous what will happen if Pyongyang decides to shoot missiles near Guam, without attempting to hit the U.S. island territory.

"That becomes an issue that we take up, and it's however the president chooses," Mattis said. "You can't make all of those kinds of decisions in advance. There is a host of things going on. There are allies we consult with, as the president made very clear last week when he talked about our allies repeatedly in his statement."

Mattis added that he needs a "certain amount of ambiguity on this, because I'm not going to tell [Kim] what I'm going to do in each case." But he warned pointedly: "You don't shoot at people in this world unless you want to bear the consequences."

Dunford was on the first stop of a trip that will also take him to Beijing on Tuesday and then to Tokyo, three capitals that do not want war to break out on their doorsteps.

China, meanwhile, signaled a potentially important break with North Korea as part of international sanctions. Beijing announced Monday that it would ban imports of iron ore, iron, lead and coal from North Korea, cutting an important economic lifeline for Pyongyang. The ban will take effect from Tuesday, China's Ministry of Commerce announced.

In the meetings with the South Korean president and other top officials Monday, Dunford appeared to offer a modified version of the threats that President Trump has issued over the past week.

Trump last week warned North Korea that it would face "fire and fury" if it tried to attack the United States or its allies. Then on Friday, after North Korea threatened to launch missiles toward Guam, Trump warned the regime that the U.S. military was "locked and loaded."

But top administration officials appear focused on trying to play down the prospect of nuclear war. Appearing on Sunday-morning talk shows, CIA Director Mike Pompeo said, "An attack from North Korea is not something that is imminent." National security adviser H.R. McMaster said, "We're not closer to war than a week ago."

"The object of our peaceful pressure campaign is the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula," Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wrote in a joint op-ed article published by the Wall Street Journal. "The U.S. has no interest in regime change or accelerated reunification of Korea. We do not seek an excuse to garrison U.S. troops north of the Demilitarized Zone. We have no desire to inflict harm on the long-suffering North Korean people, who are distinct from the hostile regime in Pyongyang."

Officials in the South Korean government have voiced surprise and confusion at Trump's tough talk of the past week.

Moon, elected as South Korea's president in May on a pledge to adopt a more conciliatory approach to North Korea, urged the United States on Monday to give diplomacy a chance.

"Peace will not come to the Korean Peninsula by force. Although peace and negotiation are painful and slow, we must pursue this path," Moon told his advisers ahead of his meeting with Dunford.

Calling the U.S.-South Korea military partnership "an alliance for peace," Moon said he was "confident that the U.S. will respond calmly and responsibly to the current situation." He even suggested that the gap between the allies was not large, as both are focused on peace.

Seoul, a vibrant metropolitan area of 25 million people, lies within range of North Korea's conventional artillery, stationed just across the border 30 miles to the north. Hundreds of thousands of Americans, including more than 28,000 U.S. troops, also live in South Korea.

After the meeting, Moon's spokesman said the president had "denounced" North Korea for disturbing the peace in the region with its repeated missile launches.

"The president noted the current security conditions on the Korean Peninsula constituted a more serious, real and urgent threat than ever created by the advancement in North Korea's nuclear and missile technologies," said spokesman Park Soo-hyun.

The U.S. and South Korean militaries next week are set to start their annual fall exercises, in which they practice responding to a North Korean invasion or the collapse of the regime in Pyongyang. North Korea always strongly objects to the drills, viewing them as a pretext for war.

Gen. Vincent Brooks, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, said the exercises would go ahead as planned, starting Aug. 21. "The exercises remain important to us, and we'll continue to move forward," he said, according to Stars and Stripes.

Authors Information: Anna Fifield is The Post’s bureau chief in Tokyo, focusing on Japan and the Koreas. Dan Lamothe covers national security for The Washington Post and anchors its military blog, Checkpoint.

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