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Thursday, August 10, 2017 1:00 am

N. Korea dismisses threats

Plans warning shots at Guam

Associated Press

WASHINGTON – North Korea on Wednesday officially dismissed President Donald Trump's threats of “fire and fury,” declaring the American leader “bereft of reason” and warning ominously, “Only absolute force can work on him.”

In a statement carried by state media, General Kim Rak Gyom, who heads North Korea's rocket command, also said his country was “about to take” military action near the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam. He said the North would finalize a plan by mid-August to fire four mid-range missiles hitting waters 20 to 25 miles away from the island.

The plan will then go to the commander in chief of North Korea's nuclear force and “wait for his order,” Kim was quoted by KCNA as saying. He called it a “historic enveloping fire at Guam.”

The statement only served to escalate tensions further in a week that has seen a barrage of threats from both sides. While nuclear confrontation still seems remote, the comments have sparked deep unease in the United States, Asia and beyond.

A day after evoking the use of overwhelming U.S. military might, Trump touted America's atomic supremacy. From the New Jersey golf resort where he's vacationing, he tweeted that his first order as president was to “renovate and modernize” an arsenal that is “now far stronger and more powerful than ever before.”

It was a rare public flexing of America's nuclear might. And Trump's boasting only added to the confusion over his administration's approach to dealing with North Korea's expanding nuclear capabilities on a day when his top national security aides wavered between messages of alarm and reassurance.

If Trump's goal with two days of tough talk was to scare North Korea, Kim, the commander, put that idea quickly to rest. He called Trump's rhetoric a “load of nonsense” that was aggravating a grave situation.

“Sound dialogue is not possible with such a guy bereft of reason, and only absolute force can work on him,” the KNCA report quoted him saying.

Kim said the Guam action would be “an effective remedy for restraining the frantic moves of the U.S. in the southern part of the Korean peninsula and its vicinity.”

Guam lies about 2,100 miles from the Korean Peninsula, and it's extremely unlikely that Kim's government would risk annihilation with a pre-emptive attack on U.S. citizens. It's also unclear how reliable North Korea's missiles would be against such a distant target, but no one was writing off the danger completely.

The new specificity from Pyongyang about its plans for a potential attack came as Trump and his top national security aides delivered contrasting messages over North Korea's expanding nuclear capabilities.

As international alarm escalated, Trump dug in on his threats of military action and posted video of his ultimatum to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The suggestion that Trump has enhanced U.S. nuclear firepower was immediately disputed by experts, who noted no progress under Trump's presidency. Still, Trump tweeted, “Hopefully we will never have to use this power, but there will never be a time that we are not the most powerful nation in the world!”

This week, an official Japanese report and a classified U.S. intelligence document, the latter reported by the Washington Post, combined to suggest the North was closer to being able to strike the United States with a nuclear missile than previously believed. The U.S. document reportedly assessed that the North had mastered the ability to fit a nuclear warhead on its long-range missiles.

After North Korea issued its own warning that suggested it could attack Guam, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sought to calm the sense of crisis.

Speaking earlier Wednesday on his way home from Asia, he credited Trump with sending a strong message to the North Korean leader on the “unquestionable” U.S. ability to defend itself, so as to prevent “any miscalculation.” Tillerson insisted the U.S. isn't signaling a move toward military action, while it pursues a policy of sanctions and isolation of North Korea.

“Americans should sleep well at night,” Tillerson told reporters. He added, “Nothing that I have seen and nothing that I know of would indicate that the situation has dramatically changed in the last 24 hours.”

No sooner had Tillerson ratcheted down the rhetoric than Defense Secretary Jim Mattis ratcheted it back up.

Echoing Trump's martial tone, Mattis said North Korea should stand down its nuclear weapons program and “cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people.”

As seldom as it is for a president to speak of using nuclear missiles, the reference to the “destruction” of a foreign people is equally rare.