Donald Trump has said that a “major conflict” is possible with North Korea though he would prefer to solve the standoff over the country’s nuclear and missile programmes through diplomacy.
Trump’s warning on Thursday came towards the end of a week where the administration has made a concerted effort to restrain Pyongyang from carrying out major new weapons tests.
At the same time, US officials sought to clarify US policy after a variety of mixed signals in the administration’s first 100 days.
Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, said that the US would be prepared to enter into direct talks with the regime of Kim Jong-un, but that it would have to prepare to negotiate getting rid of all its nuclear weapons.
The opening to diplomacy came as the head of the US Pacific Command, Admiral Harry Harris told the Senate that the standoff with North Korea was the worst he had seen. It was an assessment echoed by the president.
“There is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea. Absolutely,” Trump told Reuters.
“We’d love to solve things diplomatically but it’s very difficult,” the president added.
Trump suggested there had been a breakthrough in Chinese readiness to help apply pressure on Kim since Xi Jinping visited the US president in Florida earlier this month.
“I believe he [the Chinese president] is trying very hard. He certainly doesn’t want to see turmoil and death. He doesn’t want to see it. He is a good man. He is a very good man and I got to know him very well,” Trump said.
“With that being said, he loves China and he loves the people of China. I know he would like to be able to do something, perhaps it’s possible that he can’t.”
Tillerson had earlier said the Chinese had warned Pyongyang, an increasingly unruly client in recent years, that it would impose punitive measures if North Korea carried out provocative tests.
“We know that China is in communications with the regime in Pyongyang,” he told Fox News. “They confirmed to us that they had requested the regime conduct no further nuclear test.”
According to Tillerson, the Chinese told the regime “that if they did conduct further nuclear tests, China would be taking sanctions actions on their own”.
China refused to confirm or deny the US claim of new pressure. A foreign ministry spokesman reiterated China’s support for UN sanctions on the North, but repeatedly avoided giving a direct answer when asked at a daily press briefing about what other plans China might be considering.
The US secretary of state said that the North Korean regime viewed its nuclear weapons and missile programmes as a guarantee of survival, and that the Trump administration sought to change that mindset.
“We want to change that calculus of theirs and we have said to them: your pathway to survival and security is to eliminate your nuclear weapons and we and other countries will help you on the way to economic development,” Tillerson said. He assured Pyongyang that the US objective was ridding the Korean peninsula of nuclear weapons, not toppling Kim Jong-un.