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Mullen Expresses Concern Over 'Brinkmanship' With North Korea

Then-Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, in 2011. Mullen, who retired six years ago, has expressed concern about escalating tensions with North Korea.
Harry Hamburg

Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen is warning that tensions with North Korea could easily get "out of control" and blames President Trump's harsh rhetoric for narrowing options.

Speaking on NBC's Meet the Press, Mullen was asked whether the president's bellicose comments on North Korea had made the situation worse.

"It eliminates maneuver space for him because it looks like brinkmanship to me," said Mullen, a retired admiral.

The remarks by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama come after a week of tit for tat between Washington and Pyongyang that saw Trump promise to respond to North Korean threats with "fire and fury" and tweeting that a military response was "locked and loaded." North Korea has threatened to conduct missile tests in waters near the U.S. territory of Guam.

"I'm really concerned, because I don't know where this goes in terms of a peaceful resolution," Mullen told Meet the Press.

He said he was worried about the "very strong rhetoric" coming from both sides in the dispute.

"That rhetoric, it seems to me, has taken away options or it's reduced maneuver space, if you will, for leaders to make decisions," he said.

"And if this results in a military strike, the unintended consequences of that, the possibility that there are disproportional responses, miscalculations. It can really get out of control fast," he said.

Meanwhile, CIA Director Mike Pompeo said Sunday that after conducting two ballistic missile tests in July, he would not be surprised if North Korea conducted another.

"I am quite confident that [North Korean leader Kim Jong Un] will continue to try to develop his missile program, so it wouldn't surprise me if there was another missile test," Pompeo said on Fox News Sunday.

Japan's former ambassador to the United States, Ichiro Fujisaki, speaking with NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday, said Japan is "rather reassured" that Washington "is getting more serious" about the threat from North Korea.

However, he noted that his personal opinion is "that it's very important to say it once, but that it doesn't have to be repeated."

Many observers have pointed out the similarity of Trump's "fire and fury" comments to the steady stream of propaganda coming out of North Korea, a criticism shared by Fujisaki. "It does not have to come down to the rhetoric of North Korea," he said.

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Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.
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