Military is ‘locked and loaded,’ Trump says in latest warning to North Korea

President Trump on Friday offered a fresh threat of force against North Korea, writing on Twitter that the U.S. military is “locked and loaded” and ready to take action against the isolated country if it continues to “act unwisely.”

“Hopefully Kim Jong Un will find another path!” Trump said in provocative comments directed at the leader of a nation that, in open defiance of the United Nations, has been developing nuclear weapons capable of reaching the United States.

As Trump continued his bellicose rhetoric — a tactic criticized by some U.S. leaders and allies — North Korea kept up its verbal salvos, as well. A commentary in a state-run newspaper said that the “U.S. military warmongers are running amok” and warned that “the U.S. and its vassal forces will dearly pay for the harshest sanctions and pressure and reckless military provocations.”

In the Pacific region and around the world, concern mounted over the rhetoric from both sides. German Chancellor Angela Merkel cautioned that “verbal escalation” may be the wrong response to the crisis.

Trump’s latest verbal volley came a day after he warned North Korea that “things will happen to them like they never thought possible” should the country attack the United States or its allies.

Trump also told reporters that his threat of “fire and fury” on Tuesday may not have been “tough enough,” even as he sought to reassure an anxious world that he has the situation under control.

The ratcheted-up talk by Trump comes as North Korea has stepped up its threats against the United States, including warning of a potential missile launch landing near the U.S. territory of Guam.

Later Friday morning, Trump retweeted images from the U.S. Pacific Command that showed two Air Force B-1B bombers that it said had joined counterparts from the South Korean and Japanese air forces in the region.

The command’s tweet included the hashtag #FightTonight, more of a signal of its readiness to fight if needed than a sign it is spoiling for a battle within days. The Air Force has kept bombers on Guam for years, and the Pentagon and U.S. Forces Korea have long used the “fight tonight” motto in South Korea to reflect the seriousness of their mission.

Trump’s tweets and statements to reporters this week have come from Bedminster, N.J., where he is on what the White House called a working vacation at his private golf club.

Amid the tensions, Trump has scheduled a 5 p.m. meeting in Bedminster with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley.

The State Department said Tillerson would “de-brief” the president on his recent trip to Asia.

Although neither Tillerson nor Defense Secretary Jim Mattis have spoken directly about Trump’s threats, both have issued statements this week indicating that diplomacy is and should remain the centerpiece of U.S. policy toward North Korea.

A White House aide said Trump plans to return to Washington for part of the day on Monday but would not share the reason for his trip amid time scheduled in New Jersey and New York.

Trump’s rhetoric has become considerably more bellicose in recent days.

Just this past weekend, the administration was congratulating itself for orchestrating a unanimous U.N. Security Council vote to sharply increase sanctions against Pyongyang, describing steady diplomatic and economic pressure as the keystone of its strategy.

On Thursday, however, Trump said that the administration is examining its entire military posture in Asia and that “we are preparing for many different alternative events.”

After Trump’s tweet Friday, Merkel told reporters in Berlin that “I don’t see a military solution to this conflict,” according to the media outlet Deutsche Welle.

“I see the need for enduring work at the U.N. Security Council . . . as well as tight cooperation between the countries involved, especially the U.S. and China,” she said.

Germany, Merkel said, “will very intensively take part in the options for resolution that are not military, but I consider a verbal escalation to be the wrong response.” Under the NATO charter, all 29 members have pledged that an attack against any one of them will be considered an attack against all.

Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the risks of direct conflict “are very high, especially given this rhetoric, [when] direct threats of using force are being made.”

Russia, he said, was “very worried” by “talk of the need to carry out a preemptive strike at North Korea, Pyongyang’s talk of the need to strike at Guam island. . . . This has been continual,” according to the Russian news agency Interfax.

“We don’t accept a nuclear-powered North Korea,” Lavrov said in response to questions at a youth forum, but he added that the United States should take the first step away from conflict.

“I believe when it actually comes to a fight, the one that is stronger and smarter should take the first step away from the dangerous line,” Lavrov said.

He repeated a call by Russia and China for a “double freeze” in which Kim “freezes any nuclear tests, any ballistic-missile launches, while the U.S. and South Korea freeze large-scale military exercises, which are constantly used by North Korea as an excuse to conduct tests.”

The United States has rejected such a freeze, and an annual U.S.-South Korea military exercise is scheduled to begin later this month.

In the Pacific region, U.S. allies Japan, South Korea and Australia have called for caution but said they would support the United States in the event of an attack by North Korea.

An editorial in China’s state-run Global Times said that Beijing should “prevent” the United States and South Korea from carrying out an attack designed to overthrow the North Korean government but that China should “stay neutral” in the event of a North Korean attack and U.S. retaliation.

Meanwhile, in a commentary published Friday in North Korea, the mouthpiece of the ruling Workers’ Party said in typically dramatic language that “the U.S. has been seized with anxiety and terror” since North Korea conducted its second intercontinental ballistic-missile test last month.

The United States is now “fearful of when weapons of Korea will shower shells on its military bases for aggression and mainland,” the paper said, accusing Trump by name of creating a “horrible atmosphere” by saying any war would be fought on the Korean Peninsula.

“That is why U.S. military warmongers are running amok, vociferating about introduction of strategic assets into the Korean peninsula and ‘preemptive attack,’ ” the commentary said.

“It is tragedy that the reckless and hysteric behaviors may reduce the U.S. mainland to ashes any moment,” it continued, saying that North Korea would emerge victorious from the standoff, which has lasted since the Korean War ended in an armistice in 1953.

“The U.S. and its vassal forces will dearly pay for the harshest sanctions and pressure and reckless military provocations against the DPRK,” the commentary concluded, using the official abbreviation for North Korea.

Amid calls at home and abroad for dialogue rather than threats, the Trump administration has kept open a back channel of talks with Pyongyang. But a senior official said, “I wouldn’t want to steer you toward the idea that there’s a lot going on.”

“I would only say that if the North Koreans were ready to talk on terms that we would consider acceptable, it wouldn’t be hard for them to find us,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss closed-door policymaking.

Tillerson made a similar reference at an Asian security forum last week in the Philippines. “We have other means of communication open to them,” he said of the North Koreans, “to certainly hear from them if they have a desire to want to talk.”

North Korea closed down the official “New York channel,” as the communication line between its diplomats at the United Nations and U.S. officials is called, in June of last year after the Obama administration imposed sanctions on Kim by name for human rights abuses. Washington and Pyongyang have no diplomatic relations.

But talks were opened again this June when the U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, Joseph Yun, traveled to Oslo to meet with Pak Song Il, a senior diplomat at Pyongyang’s U.N. mission, on the sidelines of unofficial “track two” talks routinely held among regional experts.

The main purpose of that meeting, hosted by Norway, was to discuss four Americans being held hostage by North Korea, officials said at the time. Yun’s direct counterpart, Choe Son Hui, director of the America division in North Korea’s Foreign Ministry, agreed to allow consular access to the four by Swedish diplomats representing the United States in Pyongyang.

Before those visits could take place, however, Pak urgently summoned Yun to New York to tell him that one of the four, 22-year-old American student Otto Warmbier, was ill and was being released. Warmbier had been arrested 17 months earlier for allegedly attempting to steal a propaganda poster while on a tour to North Korea.

Yun and a medical team traveled to Pyongyang, where they found Warmbier in a coma. He was flown back to the United States and died a week later without regaining consciousness.

Since then, according to a person with knowledge of the situation, Yun has messaged Pak with a willingness to have bilateral “talks about talks,” even as he has pursued the release of the other three Americans.

Jenna Johnson in Bedminster; Philip Rucker, Dan Lamothe and Brian Murphy in Washington; and Anna Fifield in Seoul contributed to this report.