SALT LAKE CITY — President Donald Trump warning North Korea that the United States could unleash "fire and fury the likes of which this world has never seen" if its threats don't stop has some wondering if there's a shift in U.S. policy.
One reading of Trump's word suggests he's reiterating that if any nation, especially North Korea, harms or kills Americans, the response would be overwhelming, said Kirk Larsen, a BYU history professor with expertise in Korean politics.
Larsen noted that in 1993, then-President Bill Clinton said that if North Korea attacked or provoked the U.S., it would "mean the end of their country as they know it."
"What is new is President Trump's flair for the dramatic," Larsen said Wednesday.
"What is also new is — and we don't know if how much of this is a demonstration of a new policy or if it's Trump being a little bit imprecise — is that Trump said if North Korea threatens the United States, then we'll have this overwhelming response, and that opens the door to possible pre-emptive action on the part of the United States," he said on KSL Newsradio's "The Doug Wright Show."
Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, said Trump's words don't reflect a shift in U.S. policy.
"I think it's very descriptive language. It might be his way of communicating to Kim Jong Un in language that Kim Jong Un uses," he said. "I don't think we've become more aggressive. I don't think we've drawn a new line in the sand."
North Korea's military on Tuesday said it's exploring a plan to strike areas around the U.S. territory of Guam with medium- to long-range strategic ballistic missiles.
Stewart, who serves on the House Intelligence Committee, said he doesn't believe war is imminent.
"I'm not building a bomb shelter, and I don't recommend other people building bomb shelters," he told the Deseret News. "I think a lot of what you're hearing is bluster from an unpredictable and dangerous regime but a regime that I don't believe wants to start a nuclear war right now."
Still, Stewart said the U.S. has to take the latest threat seriously.
Kim, he said, is committed to having miniaturized nuclear weapons on intercontinental ballistic missiles that are capable of reaching dozens of American cities.
"That is a dangerous, dangerous development," Stewart said.
North Korean saber-rattling is nothing new and it has threatened its enemies in various ways over the years, but its expanding nuclear capabilities appear to have emboldened it leader.
"There has long been this kind of rhetorical dance where North Korea will say very bellicose, incendiary things but back away a little bit when things get really serious," Larsen said.
But Trump and Kim are injecting more unpredictability into the relationship, he said.
There's increasing anxiety in Asia about a change in U.S. policy, and leaders in Seoul and Tokyo are "scratching their heads" over what Trump means, Larsen said.
Last Saturday, the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed, including China and Russia, a resolution imposing new sanctions on North Korea for its continued ICBM testing and violations of U.N. resolutions.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said the council's "rare, unified" voice sent a strong signal to North Korea that the world won't stand idly by as the Kim regime threatens democracy and freedom. He said he agrees with Trump and Secretary of Defense James Mattis that North Korea's saber-rattling is dangerous and unacceptable.
"Empty rhetoric," is what Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said he sees coming from North Korea. He said it's part of an effort to redirect the narrative in light of the U.N. sanctions.
"If they decide to take action, then that changes the situation," he said. "They have to realize without the support of Russia and China, who are their only kind of backup they have, any kind of action on their part would be foolish."