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Tillerson Attempts To Ease Fears As North Korea Tensions Heat Up


President Trump has responded to North Korea's threat to use nuclear weapons with some threatening words of his own. At the same time, his secretary of state is trying to soothe fears of an imminent military conflict. Rex Tillerson is working on a diplomatic solution to the standoff. Experts say at this point, it will be tough to talk North Korea out of its weapons program. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The week started well for Tillerson. The U.N. Security Council passed tough new sanctions against North Korea, and the secretary was in Asia trying to make sure everyone keeps the pressure on. Then came this from President Trump.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They will be met with fire, fury and, frankly, power, the likes of which this world has never seen before.

KELEMEN: North Korea responded by saying it is now considering a missile strike against Guam, a U.S. territory that's home to huge military bases. Tillerson stopped at one of the bases there on his way home. It was a planned refueling stop, as he explained to two reporters traveling with him.


REX TILLERSON: Oh, I never considered rerouting the trip back. And I do not believe that there is any imminent threat.

KELEMEN: The former Exxon Mobil CEO seems to prefer working behind the scenes, taking time with his policy reviews. President Trump's style is blunt and brash, though Tillerson says Americans shouldn't be alarmed.


TILLERSON: What the president was just reaffirming is the United States has the capability to fully defend itself from any attack and defend our allies, and we will do so. And so the American people should sleep well tonight.

KELEMEN: An arms control expert who worked in the Obama administration is not sounding at ease. Jon Wolfsthal, now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says it's time for the U.S. and North Korea to start talking about pressing security matters, leaving the larger questions about North Korea's nuclear program to a later date.

JON WOLFSTHAL: How do we make sure North Korea knows we're not about to strike them? And how do we make sure that they don't see an incentive to strike us? We need to make sure there's no shooting war.

KELEMEN: He says sanctions and international pressure just aren't enough.

WOLFSTHAL: We can sanction them, and we can make them feel pain. But it's like squeezing a tube of toothpaste. If you don't open up the cap and squeeze them in order to achieve something, all you're doing is making the risk of a conflict more likely. And that's something that doesn't serve the interests of either the United States or our allies in the region.

KELEMEN: The problem is the North Koreans have shown no interest in negotiations - at least the kind of talks the U.S. wants - to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. Here's former U.S. negotiator Victor Cha, now with Georgetown University and the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

VICTOR CHA: We may actually be in a situation where the North has a goal that it's trying to fulfill, and that is to demonstrate this ICBM capability. And what we've seen under this leadership of Kim Jong Un from the start is that they have been unwilling to talk to anybody.

KELEMEN: Cha doesn't think Trump's fiery rhetoric will make things any worse.

CHA: The North has its own timeline and its own playbook.

KELEMEN: He's recommending that the U.S. keep open the door for negotiations and maintain a credible deterrent posture. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis reinforced that second message today, warning North Korea to stand down in its pursuit of nuclear weapons and not take any actions that would, quote, "lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people." Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.