- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The U.S. slapped sanctions on North Korean banks Tuesday as President Trump vowed to “fix the mess” of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programs and warned that military action would be devastating to North Korea.

The Treasury Department said it was freezing the assets in U.S. jurisdiction of eight North Korean banks and 26 of their bank workers living abroad, part of the continuing response to Pyongyang’s illicit nuclear weapons and missile programs.

“It is time for all responsible nations to join forces, to isolate the North Korean menace,” President Trump said. “All nations must act now to ensure the regime’s complete denuclearization.”

The president said the U.S. is prepared for war but added that military action is “not a preferred option.”

“But if we take that option, it will be devastating — I can tell you that — devastating for North Korea,” he said. “If we have to take it, we will.”

North Korea’s military forces have not shifted into a war footing on the peninsula despite claims by Pyongyang that Mr. Trump’s hostile rhetoric against Kim Jong-un’s regime is equivalent to a declaration of war and its threats to shoot down U.S. warplanes.

Although the North’s forces positioned along its border with South Korea remain stagnant, American troops stationed along the Demilitarized Zone continue to be on a high state of alert, prepared to respond to any action the North’s forces may take, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress on Tuesday.

“While the political space is clearly very charged right now, we haven’t seen a change in the posture of North Korean forces,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “We watch that very carefully. We clearly have postured our forces to respond in the event of a provocation or conflict.”

Aside from preparations being taken by U.S. Forces-Korea, American commanders in the Pacific “have taken all proper measures to protect our allies, the South Koreans, the Japanese, the force, as well as Americans in the area,” Gen. Dunford said.

Despite such precautions, the four-star Marine general made clear that Pyongyang is holding its fire amid a war of words with Washington.

“What we haven’t seen is military activity that would be reflective of the charged political environment” between the White House and North Korea, he said.

Republicans in Congress supported the administration’s latest sanctions.

Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, chairman of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs subcommittee on national security and international trade, said the sanctions “turn the screw on those bankrolling Kim Jong-un’s nuclear ambitions from the shadows.”

“The decision to further isolate Pyongyang’s dictatorship is not just a display of American economic strength but also a clear warning to anyone thinking of doing business with this despot,” Mr. Sasse said.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus chided Mr. Trump for a week of escalating rhetoric with North Korea, urging the administration to “rapidly shift course away from this volatile and irresponsible path.”

“President Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric towards North Korea is dangerous and harmful,” wrote Democratic Reps. Raul M. Grijalva of Arizona, Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, Barbara Lee of California and John Conyers Jr. of Michigan. “President Trump must de-escalate tensions and pursue a diplomatic solution immediately to prevent the crisis from spiraling out of control.”

The liberal lawmakers said there is no military solution in North Korea and that only Congress can declare war.

They also rebuked Mr. Trump for “continuously” defying the United Nations Charter, which requires all members to “refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force.”

“President Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric and talks about ‘totally destroying’ a country of 25 million people does nothing more than feed into the frenzy and instability of North Korea’s dictator,” the Democrats said.

In the past week of trading personal insults, Mr. Trump has called Mr. Kim a “Rocket Man” who is “on a suicide mission.” The North Korean has belittled Mr. Trump as “mentally deranged” and in a “dotard” state, the latter an arcane term for a stage of senility.

But Mr. Kim also has threatened to detonate a nuclear bomb over the Pacific Ocean and in recent weeks has warned of a possible missile attack against the U.S. territory of Guam.

Mr. Trump said Mr. Kim is “acting very badly” but added that the rhetoric is just that — rhetoric.

“He’s saying things that should never, ever be said,” the president said. “And we’re replying to those things, but it’s a reply. It’s not an original statement; it’s a reply.”

The president again blamed several previous administrations for allowing the North Korean situation to reach this crisis point.

North Korea is a situation that should have been handled 25 years ago, 20 years ago, 15 years ago, 10 years ago and five years ago, and it could have been handled much more easily,” Mr. Trump said. “You had various administrations — many administrations, which left me a mess. But I’ll fix the mess.”

During the United Nations General Assembly last week, Mr. Trump prevailed upon China’s central bank to cut off financial ties with North Korea. The U.S. warned China that it was preparing to sanction any banks doing business with Pyongyang.

“In particular, I applaud China for breaking off all banking relationships with North Korea, something that people would have thought unthinkable even two months ago,” Mr. Trump said.

On Monday, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho said recent comments by Mr. Trump meant a declaration of war.

“Last weekend, Trump claimed our leadership would not be around much longer,” Mr. Ri said. “He declared a war on our country.”

He warned that North Korea could take action such as shooting down U.S. bombers off the coast of North Korea on Saturday, farther north of the Demilitarized Zone than any other U.S. aircraft had flown in this century.

“Since the United States declared war on our country, we will have every right to take countermeasures including the right to shoot down U.S. strategic bombers even when they are not yet inside the airspace border of our country,” Mr. Ri said. “The question of who won’t be around much longer will be answered then.”

Pyongyang has repeatedly launched missile test shots into international waters around Japan and other U.S. allies in the region. Most recently, Pyongyang fired a pair of missiles over the island chains of northern Japan. It was the first time any North Korean missile had crossed into Japanese airspace.

U.S. military and intelligence officials estimate that Pyongyang could have a reliable, long-range, nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile fielded by the end of next year. On Tuesday, Gen. Dunford said it was simply a matter of time before the North fields such a weapon.

“Whether it’s three months or six months or 18 months, it is soon, and we ought to conduct ourselves as though it is just a matter of time, and a matter of very short time, before North Korea has that capability,” he said.

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