U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday dismissed any diplomatic negotiations with North Korea, tweeting "Talking is not the answer," one day after Pyongyang fired a ballistic missile over Japan and drew international condemnation.
But his defence chief swiftly asserted that diplomatic options remain, and Russia demanded U.S. restraint.
"The U.S. has been talking to North Korea, and paying them extortion money, for 25 years. Talking is not the answer!" Trump wrote in a post on Twitter.
The U.S. has been talking to North Korea, and paying them extortion money, for 25 years. Talking is not the answer!— @realDonaldTrump
When asked by reporters before a meeting with his South Korean counterpart at the Pentagon if the United States was out of diplomatic solutions with North Korea, U.S. Defence Secretary James Mattis disagreed.
"We are never out of diplomatic solutions. We continue to work together, and the minister and I share a responsibility to provide for the protection of our nations, our populations, and our interests," said Mattis.
The United Nations condemned North Korea's "outrageous" firing of the missile, demanding that the isolated country halts its weapons program but holding back on any threat of new sanctions.
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Top Trump administration officials, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats will hold classified briefings for members of the U.S. Congress on Sept. 6, congressional aides said.
Russia urges U.S. restraint
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke by telephone with Tillerson and urged the U.S. to refrain from any military action on the Korean peninsula that would be "fraught with unpredictable consequences," Russia's Foreign Ministry said.
Trump, who has vowed not to let North Korea develop nuclear missiles that can hit the mainland United States, had said on Tuesday "all options are on the table," a veiled reference to military force.
Lavrov also said Russia, which wields veto power on the UN Security Council, believed any further sanctions on North Korea would be counter-productive, the ministry added.
In Geneva, U.S. disarmament ambassador Robert Wood said discussions were under way among world powers on what kind of further sanctions could imposed.
North Korea said the launch of an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) on Tuesday was to counter U.S. and South Korean military drills and a first step in military action in the Pacific to "contain" the U.S. territory of Guam.
Launch conducted from Pyongyang
The North's leader, Kim Jong-un, ordered the launch to be conducted for the first time from its capital, Pyongyang, and said more exercises with the Pacific as the target were needed, the North's KCNA news agency said on Wednesday.
"The current ballistic rocket launching drill, like a real war, is the first step of the military operation of the KPA [Korean People's Army] in the Pacific and a meaningful prelude to containing Guam," KCNA quoted Kim as saying.
North Korea this month threatened to fire four missiles into the sea near Guam, home to a major U.S. military presence, after Trump said the North would face "fire and fury" if it threatened the United States.
North Korea has conducted dozens of ballistic missile tests under Kim in defiance of UN sanctions, but firing a projectile over mainland Japan was a rare and provocative move.
For its part, the U.S. Defense Department's Missile Defense Agency announced a "complex" and successful missile defence flight test off Hawaii early on Wednesday, intercepting a medium-range ballistic missile target.
"We are working closely with the fleet to develop this important new capability, and this was a key milestone in giving our Aegis BMD [Ballistic Missile Defense] ships an enhanced capability to defeat ballistic missiles in their terminal phase," said agency director Lieutenant General Sam Greaves in a statement without mentioning North Korea. "We will continue developing ballistic missile defense technologies to stay ahead of the threat as it evolves."
New UN sanctions not yet in offing
The 15-member Security Council said it was of "vital importance" that North Korea take immediate, concrete actions to reduce tension and Tuesday called on all states to implement UN sanctions. However, the U.S.-drafted statement, which was agreed by consensus, does not threaten new sanctions on North Korea.
Japan pushed the United States on Wednesday to propose new UN Security Council sanctions on North Korea that diplomats said could target the country's labourers working abroad, oil supply and textile exports.
The United States traditionally drafts resolutions to impose sanctions on North Korea over its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs. It first negotiates with Pyongyang ally China before involving the remaining 13 council members.
The Security Council condemned North Korea's "outrageous" firing of a medium-range ballistic missile over northern Japan on Tuesday, but did not threaten new sanctions.
Japan's UN Ambassador Koro Bessho said Tokyo would now like a "strong resolution" on North Korea.
"We will certainly discuss it with the United States," Bessho told reporters on Wednesday.
A push for new sanctions is likely to counter resistance from veto-wielding powers China and Russia, diplomats said, particularly given new measures were only recently imposed after Pyongyang staged two long-range missile launches in July.
On Aug. 5, the council unanimously adopted sanctions that could slash by a third the Asian state's $3-billion US annual
export revenue by banning exports of coal, iron, lead, and seafood and prohibiting countries from sending any other North Korean labourers to work abroad.
Speaking in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China was discussing the situation with other Security Council members and would make a "necessary response" based on the consensus reached. China is the North's lone major ally.
"Any measures against North Korea should be under the UN Security Council framework, and should be carried out according to Security Council resolutions," he told a news briefing.
Unilateral sanctions did not accord with international law, Wang added, a reference to sanctions imposed on Chinese firms and citizens by the United States and Japan.
Speaking during a visit to the Japanese city of Osaka, British Prime Minister Theresa May called on China to put more pressure on North Korea, saying Beijing had a key role to play. Asked about her comments, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said some "relevant sides," when it comes to sanctions, "storm to the front, but when it comes to pushing for peace they hide at the very back."
She said this was not the attitude "responsible countries" should have when the "smell of gunpowder" remained strong over the Korean peninsula.
Leaving door open for negotiations?
Tuesday's test was of the same Hwasong-12 missile Kim had threatened to use on Guam, but the test flight took it in another direction, over northern Japan's Hokkaido and into the sea.
Reports of the launch this week by North Korean media lacked the usual boasts of technical advances. The 2,700 km that the missile flew before splashing down was much shorter and at a lower trajectory than that of an earlier launch of the same missile type.
"It is not clear what new North Korea would have learned from this launch that is relevant to a long-range missile," missile expert David Wright of the Union of Concerned Scientists said.
Kim Dong-yup, professor at the Institute for Far East Studies of Kyungnam University in Seoul, said firing the missile from a densely populated area near Pyongyang and over Japan suggested North Korea was confident in the missile's stability.
"I do not think North Korea factored in much military meaning behind yesterday's missile launch, rather yesterday's launch was all about North Korea being stubborn," he said. "At the same time, North Korea is hinting that there is room for negotiation if the U.S. and South Korea end the joint military exercises."