William Hagerty, new US Ambassador to Japan, speaks to the media in Tokyo on Aug. 31, 2017, after visiting the Imperial Palace to present his credential. Photo: Yomiuri Shimbun
William Hagerty, new US Ambassador to Japan, speaks to the media in Tokyo on Aug. 31, 2017, after visiting the Imperial Palace to present his credential. Photo: Yomiuri Shimbun

People anxious about Donald Trump’s rhetoric on North Korea should be reassured that the US president has surrounded himself with “disciplined and thoughtful” advisers who won’t rush towards war, according to his new ambassador to Japan.

William Hagerty, speaking at a business luncheon in Tokyo on Friday, argued that the Trump team was pursuing a strategy aimed at influencing China and Russia, describing it as a “three-dimensional chess game.”

Hagerty acknowledged that there were worries across the region about the standoff between the US and North Korea, but urged the assembled businesspeople to allay those concerns by spreading the word about the calibre of the team advising Trump.

He cited secretary of state Rex Tillerson, defence secretary Jim Mattis, national security adviser HR McMaster, White House chief of staff John Kelly, and joint chiefs of staff chairman Joseph Dunford as disciplined and thoughtful influencers.

“These are not people that are loose, fly-off-the-handle, shoot-from-the-hip type of people,” he told an American Chamber of Commerce in Japan audience.

Japan’s Emperor Akihito and new US Ambassador to Japan William Hagerty shake hands at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo on August 31, 2017. Photo: Imperial Household Agency of Japan/Handout via Reuters

Referring to many of that group’s service as military generals, he added: “They know the consequences of war, so nobody is taking this lightly, by any stretch of the imagination.

“So when you see a tweet or you see a headline, and I understand that raises a concern, but I want you to think hard about what’s happening, about the three-dimensional chess game that’s going on,” Hagerty said.

The comments appear to be a response to critics who say that Trump is prone to outbursts that have helped to escalate tensions between the US and Kim Jong-un’s regime, raising jitters across a region that would be at the center of any war in Korea.

Trump told the UN general assembly last week that the US would “totally destroy” North Korea if it attacked America or its allies, which followed the president’s earlier warnings of unprecedented “fire and fury” if it continued its threats. He also labelled Kim as “rocket man”.

Pyongyang sharply criticized Trump’s UN comments, along with a subsequent presidential tweet that Kim might not be around much longer, interpreting them as an effective declaration of war.

North Korea’s foreign minister warned that the regime might conduct a hydrogen bomb test over the Pacific Ocean, and reserved the right to shoot down US strategic bombers even outside North Korean airspace.

Hagerty said he wanted to provide “context” to the standoff. The ambassador said the US over the past two decades had tried dialogue and “we’ve even tried bribery” but it had not stopped North Korea from its drive to develop nuclear weapons.

“And in 2017 the president finds us at the precipice where they [North Korea] are very close to having something very horrible at hand,” he said.

“I think as Americans, as allies of Japan and South Korea, we can’t let this go further. So we’ve set the dialogue and the bribery aside. We’ve moved to the next set of options. Those are diplomatic options that my colleague Nikki Haley [the US ambassador to the UN] has been working very systematically through the UN which resulted in a series of security [council] resolutions.”

Hagerty argued those resolutions, supported by the veto-wielding states of China and Russia, had helped to put pressure on the North Korean regime and sent “a very strong message”.

“I want you to separate that from what you hear in the news,” he said.

“What’s happening in the news is a negotiation. And we’re not just negotiating with the North Koreans; we’re negotiating with the Russians and the Chinese,” he said.

US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley with Japan’s UN Ambassador Koro Bessho (L) and South Korea’s UN Ambassador Cho Tae-yul (R) at a press briefing ahead of an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council in New York, US, May 16, 2017. Reuters/Brendan McDermid

“I can assure you Nikki has not had an easy job at the UN … It’s because she’s playing a very tough game bringing the Russians and Chinese along. We’re trying to bring the world community along with us, and we have. There are also another set of options. Those are military options and the president has made it clear and he needs to continue to make it clear that all options remain on the table, but we aren’t there yet.”

Hagerty, who had a previous three-year stint in Japan with the Boston Consulting Group, served as director of appointments for Trump’s presidential transition team. He was sworn in as US ambassador to Japan in late July.

In remarks about another thorny issue – the US trade deficit with Japan – Hagerty said the two countries would continue to discuss the matter.

He also said Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 12-country trade pact known as the Trans Pacific Partnership should not been seen as a retreat from a desire to build ever-stronger economic ties with Japan.