ERIC TALMADGE and JONATHAN LEMIRE, Associated Press - BEDMINSTER, New Jersey (AP) — President Donald Trump tweeted Friday that the U.S. military is "locked and loaded" as he warned North Korea against threatening the U.S., escalating an exchange of threats between the nuclear-armed nations.
American and South Korean officials said they would move forward with large-scale military exercises later this month that North Korea, which has laid out plans to strike near the U.S. territory of Guam, claims are a rehearsal for war.
Trump tweeted Friday: "Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely. Hopefully Kim Jong Un will find another path!"
Two days after North Korea laid out its plans to strike near Guam with unsettling specificity, there was no observable march toward combat, despite the angry rhetoric from both sides. U.S. officials said there was no major movement of U.S. military assets to the region, nor were there signs Pyongyang was actively preparing for war.
As it is, the U.S. has a robust military presence in the region, including six B-1 bombers in Guam and Air Force fighter jet units in South Korea, plus other assets across the Pacific Ocean and in the skies above. Washington's vast military options range from nothing to a full-on conventional assault by air, sea and ground forces. Any order by the president could be executed quickly.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel responded Friday to Trump's tweet, saying she sees no military solution to North Korea crisis. Merkel declined to say whether Germany would stand with the U.S. in case of a military conflict with North Korea. She said, "I don't see a military solution and I don't think it's called for."
Merkel called on the U.N. Security Council to continue to address the issue. She added: "I think escalating the rhetoric is the wrong answer."
The U.S.-South Korea exercises are an annual event, but they come as Pyongyang says it is readying a plan to fire off four Hwasong-12 missiles toward the tiny island, which is U.S. territory and major military hub. The plan would be sent to leader Kim Jong Un for approval just before or as the U.S.-South Korea drills begin.
Called Ulchi-Freedom Guardian, the exercises are expected to run from Aug. 21-31 and involve tens of thousands of American and South Korean troops on the ground and in the sea and air. Washington and Seoul say the exercises are defensive in nature and crucial to maintaining a deterrent against North Korean aggression.
The exercises were scheduled well before tensions began to rise over Trump's increasingly fiery rhetoric and North Korea's announcement of the missile plan, which if carried out would be its most provocative launch yet. Along with a bigger set of maneuvers held every spring, the exercises are routinely met by strong condemnation and threats of countermeasures from North Korea.
The heightened military activity on the peninsula this time is a concern because it could increase the possibility of a mishap or an overreaction of some sort by either side that could spin into a more serious escalation. North Korea has been increasingly sensitive to the exercises lately because they reportedly include training for "decapitation strikes" to kill Kim Jong Un and his top lieutenants.
Pyongyang is also switching its propaganda machine into high gear by bringing in a large number of foreign journalists to ensure it gets global attention for an event next week in honor of its ruling Kim family on Mount Paektu, a dormant volcano that straddles the Chinese border and is something of a spiritual home for the regime.
Defense officials in Seoul confirmed that the exercises are expected to begin without any delays, but refused to provide further details. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, Ulchi-Freedom Guardian involves about 40,000 troops, along with civilian South Korean government personnel who train their civil defense responses.
The possibility of escalation is made even more acute by the lack of any means of official communication across the Demilitarized Zone, though there has been no easing of the barrage of inflammatory comments in the U.S. and the North since new sanctions against North Korea were announced last week.
Keeping up the tough talk Thursday from his New Jersey golf resort where he is on a working vacation, Trump warned Kim Jong Un's government to "get their act together" or face extraordinary trouble, and suggested his threat on Tuesday to unleash "fire and fury" on North Korea was too mild.
"North Korea better get their act together, or they are going to be in trouble like few nations have ever been in trouble," Trump said, flanked by Vice President Mike Pence. Accusing his predecessors of insufficient action, Trump said it was time somebody stood up to Kim Jong Un.
Though tensions have been building for months amid new missile tests by the North, including the launch of its first intercontinental ballistic missile, the pace has intensified since the U.N. Security Council on Saturday passed sweeping new sanctions Trump had requested.
U.S. allies Japan and South Korea quickly vowed a strong reaction if the North follows through.
Trump echoed that threat Thursday, insisting if North Korea took any steps to attack Guam, its leaders would have reason to be nervous.
"Things will happen to them like they never thought possible, OK?" Trump said. He did not specify what they might be.
___Talmadge contributed from Seoul, South Korea. Associated Press writers Josh Lederman and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.
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