White House Weighs Response to North Korea’s Threats

“When does rhetorical bombast turn into a real bomb?” Senator Benjamin Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in an essay for Foreign Policy magazine. “The president’s inflammatory and irresponsible threat does not keep America or our Asian allies safe.’’

Other presidents have responded viscerally to North Korean leaders but not so publicly. Mr. Bush once told senators that Mr. Kim’s father and predecessor, Kim Jong Il, was a “pygmy” who acted like “a spoiled child at the dinner table.” But he did that in private. President Barack Obama made a point of ignoring Mr. Kim and his son.

Advisers in recent weeks have presented Mr. Trump with several pre-emption options that included cyberattacks against military or dual-use facilities, according to senior officials. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis noted that the United States had not attempted to destroy the unarmed missiles that have been tested so far, because they were not on track to hit American territory, or allies like Japan.

So far, the president has declined to explicitly lay out a red line that, if crossed, would provoke some sort of action. One senior official said that acting to prevent an atmospheric test, which would risk radiation spreading in the winds toward populated areas, could well result in a very different decision.

Such an operation would be highly risky even if it would be far more surgical than Mr. Trump’s threat this week to “totally destroy North Korea” if forced to defend the United States or its allies. Should the United States find that North Korea was loading a nuclear warhead onto an intercontinental ballistic missile, the choices would be limited, according to officials who have participated over the years in the Pentagon’s secret war games designed to anticipate various forms of a crisis on the Korean Peninsula.

For the moment, despite his bellicose language, Mr. Trump has chosen the path of economic pressure, signing a new order on Thursday intended to cut North Korea off from the international banking system with measures that, in some ways, went significantly beyond previous efforts to punish outlier nations like Iran. The White House hopes that further isolating North Korea will eventually force Mr. Kim to come to the negotiating table.

Conservatives who bristled at what they considered Mr. Obama’s weak approach offered few complaints about the president’s taunting escalation, arguing that…

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