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Mixed Messages From U.S. Follow North Korea's Latest Nuclear Test


We're going to start this hour hearing about some major challenges the White House is confronting. Officials are still dealing with the catastrophic flooding in Texas. The White House is also preparing for a major announcement on immigration policy this week. We're going to hear from someone directly affected by that announcement in just a few minutes.

But first, we look to the White House's response to yet another North Korean nuclear test - according to experts, the most powerful to date. The blast was picked up by seismic stations all over the world. The president called for a meeting with his national security advisers this afternoon. Afterwards, Secretary of Defense James Mattis gave this statement.


JAMES MATTIS: Any threat to the United States or its territories, including Guam, or our allies, will be met with a massive military response, a response both effective and overwhelming.

MARTIN: Here to tell us more is NPR's Mara Liasson. Mara, thanks so much for joining us on this holiday weekend I'm sure many people hoped would be quiet.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Yeah, no such luck.

MARTIN: No luck there. So tell us what happened and why this test is different from previous ones.

LIASSON: It's different because North Korea says that they did an underground test of a hydrogen bomb, the biggest bomb to date. And they said it could be put on an ICBM missile that could reach the United States. So this is another step in North Korea's seemingly inexorable march to having the nuclear capability of striking the United States.

MARTIN: So we heard from secretary - Defense Secretary Mattis. And I want to mention he was flanked by the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who didn't speak. And he gave that very short but direct statement from the White House. But what has been the response out of the White House or other parts of the White House?

LIASSON: Well, it's been a series of mixed messages today. That's not uncommon when it comes to foreign policy in this administration. The president, earlier in the day, in a series of tweets, took aim at North Korea but also scolded South Korea, the United States' most important ally in the region. He tweeted - he said, South Korea is finding, as I have told them, that their talk of appeasement with North Korea will not work. They only understand one thing.

Presumably, he was talking about using force against North Korea. And he was also considering pulling out of the U.S.-South Korea Free Trade Agreement. That would be another affront to our ally, South Korea. And this is at a time when his national security advisers want the U.S. to stay in that trade agreement to present a unified front against North Korea.

MARTIN: Well, the president has also been responding to tweets throughout the day. And he also tweeted that, in addition to other options, he's considering stopping all trade with any country doing business with North Korea. What's he talking about?

LIASSON: Well, that is a really good question. That tweet had people scratching their heads all over Washington. Stopping all trade with any country doing business with North Korea? Obviously, China is North Korea's biggest partner. But also, China does $650 billion of trade with the U.S. every year. It's unclear whether he really wants to shut that down and have Americans walk into Walmart and see that nothing is there.

MARTIN: Does the U.S. have a clear policy? I guess what I should say is, does this administration have a clear policy toward North Korea?

LIASSON: Well, right now, I think the policy is not clear, except for the kind of annihilating response that Secretary Mattis described earlier. And you heard him talk about this, which is that if North Korea used a nuclear weapon against the United States or any of its territories, it would be annihilated. But even though the president has threatened to use force several times, his outgoing former top political strategist, Steve Bannon, said in an interview, flatly, that there was no military option against North Korea because of the incredible hundreds of thousands of casualties that option would immediately engender in Seoul.

So the president has been all over the place. Sometimes he talks about talking to North Korea. Sometimes he says there's no time for talking. And then his defense secretary says, sure, there's always time for diplomacy. But it is a little bit unclear, except for the bottom line of mutually assured destruction.

MARTIN: Mara, we have about a minute left. And as we said earlier, North Korea, as serious as it is, is not the only thing on the president's plate. We're expecting an announcement on Tuesday about DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. That's the program that allows young people who came here as children to avoid deportation as long as they meet certain conditions. Can you tell us anything about this expected announcement at this point?

LIASSON: This was one of the president's big campaign promises. He once called DACA executive amnesty because President Obama did this by executive order. The question now is, will he end the program? Will he let it expire? Either one would lead to the deportation of potentially hundreds of thousands of sympathetic young people who were brought here, as you said, as infants or children. Or will he punt the whole thing to Congress? Several congressmen - bipartisan move in Congress to do something to provide protection to the DREAMers.

But this, once again, puts the president in a position where he's isolated with his base. And Hurricane Harvey has made this decision much tougher for him. Not only were some of the DREAMers, the DACA recipients, hurt during the hurricane, but there are also DREAMers among the first responders in Houston.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Mara Liasson. Mara, thanks so much.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
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