'Locked and loaded': Mattis says US is 'ready' to handle a hostile act out of North Korea

BEDMINSTER, N.J./BEIJING, Aug 11 (Reuters) - President Donald Trump issued a new threat to North Korea on Friday, saying what he called U.S. military solutions were "locked and loaded" as Pyongyang accused him of driving the Korean peninsula to the brink of nuclear war.

Russia, China and Germany expressed alarm at the escalating rhetoric from Pyongyang and Washington, while the Pentagon said the United States and South Korea would move ahead as planned with a joint military exercise in 10 days, an action sure to further antagonize North Korea.

Trump, vacationing at his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf resort, kept up the war of words on Twitter and again referenced North Korea's leader. "Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely," he wrote. "Hopefully Kim Jong Un will find another path!"

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The term "locked and loaded," popularized in the 1949 war film "Sands of Iwo Jima" starring American actor John Wayne, refers to preparations for shooting a gun.

The Republican president's tweet came shortly after the North Korean state news agency, KCNA, put out a statement blaming him for the boiling tensions.

"Trump is driving the situation on the Korean peninsula to the brink of a nuclear war, making such outcries as 'the U.S. will not rule out a war against the DPRK (North Korea),'" KCNA said.

A senior U.S. diplomat has engaged in back-channel diplomacy with North Korea for several months, addressing the deteriorating relations, as well as the issue of Americans imprisoned in North Korea, the Associated Press reported.

The contacts are being held regularly between Joseph Yun, the U.S. envoy for North Korea policy, and Pak Song Il, a senior North Korean diplomat at Pyongyang's U.N. mission, according to U.S. officials and others briefed on the process cited by the AP.

The North Korean mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.

RUSSIA-CHINA PLAN

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged Pyongyang and Washington to sign up to a previously unveiled joint Russian-Chinese plan under which North Korea would freeze missile tests and the United States and South Korea would impose a moratorium on large-scale military exercises. Neither the United States nor North Korea has embraced the plan.

Lavrov said the risks of a military conflict over North Korea's nuclear program are very high and Moscow is deeply worried by the threats from Washington and Pyongyang.

"Unfortunately, the rhetoric in Washington and Pyongyang is now starting to go over the top," Lavrov said. "We still hope and believe that common sense will prevail.

"The side that is stronger and cleverer" should take the first step to defuse the crisis, Lavrov said on live state television at a forum for Russian students.

Tension in the region has risen since reclusive North Korea staged two nuclear bomb tests last year and launched two intercontinental ballistic missile tests in July in defiance of world powers. Trump has said he would not allow Pyongyang to develop a nuclear weapon capable of hitting the United States.

KCNA said on Thursday the North Korean army would complete plans in mid-August to fire four intermediate-range missiles over Japan to land in the sea 18 to 25 miles (30-40 km) from Guam. The U.S. Pacific island territory is home to a strategically located U.S. air base, a Navy installation, a Coast Guard group and roughly 6,000 U.S. military personnel.

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1. While Kim Jong Un's birthday on January 8 is a national holiday, it is unknown exactly how old the North Korean leader is. It's widely believed he is in his early-mid thirties. In 2016, the U.S. Treasury Department listed his birth year as 1984 when they placed sanctions on North Korea.

 (KCNA via REUTERS)

2. Kim Jong Un is the world's youngest leader, according to the date listed by the Treasury. 

(STR/AFP/Getty Images)

3. Kim Jong Un is very passionate about basketball. He is reportedly a big fan of Michael Jordan and has a friendly relationship with Jordan's former Chicago Bulls teammate Dennis Rodman. Rodman has visited the secluded nation multiple times and even sang him "Happy Birthday" before an exhibition game in Jan. 2014. 

(REUTERS/KCNA)

4. Kim Jong Un reportedly has a love for smoking, whiskey and cheese

(KCNA/via Reuters)

5. Kim Jong Un's older half-brother Kim Jong Nam was killed in Feb. 2017 by two women who smeared VX nerve agent on his face at an airport in Kuala Lumpur. The women were arrested following his death. Many believe the hit was directed by North Korea. 

(KCNA; REUTERS)

6. Kim Jong Un has two college degrees. One is in physics from Kim il Sung University and another as an Army officer obtained from the Kim Il Sung Military University.

(KCNA/REUTERS)

7. Kim Jong Un attended boarding school in Switzerland. It is widely disputed how much time he spent at the school. Most reports say he was abroad from 1998-2000. 

(KCNA/REUTERS)

8. Kim Jong Un is the only general in the world that does not have any military experience. 

(KCNA/REUTERS)

9. He married Ri Sol Ju in 2009. The couple has at least one daughter named Ju Ae. 

(KCNA/REUTERS)

10. Kim Jong Un had his uncle Jang Song Thaek arrested and executed for treachery in 2013. 

(REUTERS/Kyodo)

11. Kim Jong Un hand selected North Korea's first all-female music group -- Moranbong Band. They made their debut in 2012. 

(ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)

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Friday's comments followed days of incendiary rhetoric, including Trump's warning on Tuesday that the United States would unleash "fire and fury" on Pyongyang if it threatened the United States and Thursday's comments warning of grave consequences if North Korea carried out it Guam plans.

The annual joint U.S.-South Korean military exercise, called Ulchi-Freedom Guardian, is expected to go ahead as scheduled and will start on Aug. 21, said Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Logan, a Pentagon spokesman.

U.S. financial markets took the rhetorical escalation in stride on Friday even as European and Asian markets weakened in a catch-up reaction to Thursday's drop. The U.S. S&P 500 stock index stabilized after a drubbing the day before to rise 0.37 percent in early Friday trade.

MERKEL PUSHES U.N. ROLE

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said there is no military solution to the dispute, adding that "an escalation of the rhetoric is the wrong answer."

"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," Merkel told reporters in Berlin.

As of late Thursday, two U.S. officials said the threat with regards to North Korea had not changed, additional assets were not being moved into the region and intelligence did not show indications of North Korea preparing a missile launch.

Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford left Washington on Thursday to visit Japan, China and South Korea. The trip has been long planned and the issue of North Korea is likely to be a priority, officials said.

China's Foreign Ministry called on all sides to speak and act with caution. It said China, North Korea's most important ally and trading partner, hopes all sides can do more to help ease the crisis and increase mutual trust, rather than taking turns in shows of strength. Trump again urged China to do more to resolve the situation.

A Chinese state-run newspaper said on Friday that China should remain neutral if North Korea launches an attack that threatens the United States, sounding a warning for Pyongyang over its plans to fire missiles near Guam.

RELATED: A look at North Korea's July 2017 missile test

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A look at North Korea's July 2017 missile test
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A look at North Korea's July 2017 missile test
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un guides the second test-fire of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) Hwasong-14 in this undated picture provided by KCNA in Pyongyang on July 29, 2017. KCNA via Reuters ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE. SOUTH KOREA OUT. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. NOT FOR USE BY REUTERS THIRD PARTY DISTRIBUTORS.� TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) Hwasong-14 is pictured during its second test-fire in this undated picture provided by KCNA in Pyongyang on July 29, 2017. KCNA via Reuters ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE. SOUTH KOREA OUT. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. NOT FOR USE BY REUTERS THIRD PARTY DISTRIBUTORS.� TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
People watch news report showing North Korea's Hwasong-14 missile launch on electronic screen at Pyongyang station, North Korea in this photo taken by Kyodo on July 29, 2017. Mandatory credit Kyodo/via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. JAPAN OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN JAPAN.
The Central Committee and the Central Military Commission of the Workers' Party of Korea hold a banquet at the Mokran House in celebration of the second successful test-fire of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) Hwasong-14, in this undated picture provided by KCNA in Pyongyang on July 30, 2017. KCNA/via Reuters ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE. SOUTH KOREA OUT. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. NOT FOR USE BY REUTERS THIRD PARTY DISTRIBUTORS.
The Central Committee and the Central Military Commission of the Workers' Party of Korea hold a banquet at the Mokran House in celebration of the second successful test-fire of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) Hwasong-14, in this undated picture provided by KCNA in Pyongyang on July 30, 2017. KCNA/via Reuters ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE. SOUTH KOREA OUT. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. NOT FOR USE BY REUTERS THIRD PARTY DISTRIBUTORS.
Coverage of an ICBM missile test is displayed on a screen in a public square in Pyongyang on July 29, 2017. Kim Jong-Un boasted of North Korea's ability to strike any target in the US after a second ICBM test that weapons experts said on July 29 could even bring New York into range - in a potent challenge to President Donald Trump. / AFP PHOTO / Kim Won-Jin (Photo credit should read KIM WON-JIN/AFP/Getty Images)
A man and woman watch coverage of an ICBM missile test displayed on a screen in a public square in Pyongyang on July 29, 2017. Kim Jong-Un boasted of North Korea's ability to strike any target in the US after a second ICBM test that weapons experts said on July 29 could even bring New York into range - in a potent challenge to President Donald Trump. / AFP PHOTO / Kim Won-Jin (Photo credit should read KIM WON-JIN/AFP/Getty Images)
In this photo taken on July 29, 2017, a woman holding a mock rifle stands at a bus stop in Pyongyang. North Korea said July 30 its latest ICBM test was a 'warning' targeting the US for its efforts to slap new sanctions on Pyongyang and threatened a counter-strike if provoked militarily by Washington. / AFP PHOTO / Ed JONES (Photo credit should read ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)
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U.S. allies in the region have reacted with alarm to Trump's comments this week and senior U.S. officials scrambled to play down his remarks. But Trump amplified the warning on Thursday, saying maybe his "fire and fury" threat "wasn't tough enough." U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis later sought to temper Trump's harsh words by saying the United States still preferred a diplomatic approach to the North Korean threat. A war would be "catastrophic," he said.

Asked if the United States was prepared to handle a hostile act by North Korea, Mattis said: "We are ready."

The United States and South Korea remain technically at war with North Korea after the 1950-53 Korean conflict ended with a truce, not a peace treaty.

(Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu and Idrees Ali in WASHINGTON, Dustin Volz in SAN FRANCISCO, Tim Kelly in TOKYO, Christine Kim in SEOUL, Martin Petty in GUAM, Kim Coghill in SINGAPORE, Michelle Nichols at the UNITED NATIONS, Dmitry Solovyov in MOSCOW, Joseph Nasr and Paul Carrel in BERLIN; Writing by Doina Chiacu and Will Dunham; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Bill Trott)

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