WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump vowed to "fix the mess" over North Korea's nuclear program but warned any U.S. military attack would be "devastating." The tough talk came as Trump's administration sought to turn up the economic pressure with new sanctions punishing North Korean banks and their workers.
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As Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the U.S. was still hoping for a diplomatic resolution, Trump echoed the sentiment, declaring that a military strike was "not a preferred option." Still, Trump said the United States was "totally prepared" to pursue that route if necessary.
"If we take that option, it will be devastating, I can tell you that. Devastating," Trump said in a Rose Garden news conference. "If we have to take it, we will."
The president appeared eager to push back on the notion that it was he, not North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who's responsible for upping the rhetoric between the countries to alarming levels. And he assigned some fault for the mounting crisis to his predecessors for failing to address the North's nuclear ambitions over many decades.
"It's left me a mess," Trump said, adding: "I'll fix the mess."
Trump emphasized that world nations must act quickly to "ensure the regime's complete denuclearization," referring to Kim Jong Un's government. Though the U.S. has continued to argue publicly North Korea should give up its nuclear program, U.S. officials and North Korea experts have said that halting or rolling back Pyongyang's program is the more realistic outcome.
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Trump spoke alongside the visiting Spanish prime minister minutes after his Treasury Department announced new sanctions targeting eight North Korean banks and 26 bank workers living abroad.
The North Korean targets mark the first use of new sanctioning powers that Trump created in an executive order he signed last week to target North Korea's access to the international banking system. They also came as the United Nations has also recently passed its toughest sanctions package targeting North Korea.
The eight banks are all in North Korea. The Treasury Department said the 26 individuals are North Korean nationals employed by those banks. Of the 26, 19 of them live in China, while three live in Russia and two each in Libya and the United Arab Emirates.
"This is a clear message to Chinese banks: We can find these individuals, so can you," said Anthony Ruggiero, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which advocates for tough sanctions on North Korea.
Trump's executive order, signed last week as world leaders attended the U.N. General Assembly, also created a pathway for the U.S. to impose so-called secondary sanctions on banks in third countries that do even legitimate business with North Korea. Those sanctions would essentially force those banks, mostly in China, to stop doing any business with North Korea or lose all access to the U.S. financial system.
So far, the administration hasn't explicitly used that secondary sanctions authority. But by publicly naming the North Korean banks and their workers, the U.S. sent a signal that those banks are now considered off-limits. A U.S. official said anyone, including banks, that does business with the North Korean banks or workers now run the risk of being hit themselves by sanctions.
The penalties are part of a Trump administration effort to show it's still committed to using economic pressure and diplomacy to resolve the North Korea nuclear crisis, rather than the military threat that Trump has repeatedly issued. After Trump tweeted that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un "won't be around much longer, his administration clarified on Monday that the U.S. is not seeking his overthrow.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, in announcing the new sanctions, described them as part of the broader effort to isolate North Korea.
"We are targeting North Korean banks and financial facilitators acting as representatives for North Korean banks across the globe," Mnuchin said.
The U.S. also used an additional designation to emphasize that two banks in North Korea are actually part of Kim's government: the Foreign Trade Bank of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and the Central Bank of Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Both banks had been previously targeted under earlier sanctions authorities.
Reach Josh Lederman on Twitter at http://twitter.com/joshledermanAP