The United States is ready to use the “full range” of its military capabilities to deal with North Korea, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff told his South Korean counterparts Monday, amid widening pressures on the regime of Kim Jong Un.
But Gen. Joseph Dunford, speaking in Seoul, just 30 miles south of the border with North Korea, stressed that diplomacy and sanctions were the first plan.
“The military dimension today is directly in support of that diplomatic and economic effort,” Dunford told reporters after meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in Seoul.
“It would be a horrible thing were a war to be conducted here on the peninsula, and that’s why we’re so focused on coming up with a peaceful way ahead,” he said, according to Stars and Stripes. The Washington Post was not permitted to attend the “invited press event” that Dunford held after the meeting and no transcript was provided.
“Nobody’s looking for war,” the Marine general said, according to the military newspaper. But he added that the military’s job was to provide “viable military options in the event that deterrence fails.”
Dunford was on the first stop of a trip that will also take him to Beijing Tuesday and then on to Tokyo, three capitals that do not want war to break out on their doorsteps.
China, meanwhile, signaled a potentially important break with North Korea as part of international sanctions. Beijing announced Monday that it would ban imports of iron ore, iron, lead and coal from North Korea, cutting an important economic lifeline for Pyongyang. The ban will take effect from Tuesday, China’s Ministry of Commerce announced.
In the meetings with South Korean president Moon Jae-in and other top officials Monday, Dunford appeared to offer a modified version of the threats that President Donald Trump has issued over the past week.
Trump last week warned North Korea that it would face “fire and fury” if it tried to attack the United States or its allies. Then on Friday, after North Korea threatened to launch missiles toward Guam, Trump warned the regime that the American military was “locked and loaded.”
But top administration officials appear focused on trying to play down the prospect of nuclear war. Appearing on the Sunday shows, CIA Director Mike Pompeo said that “an attack from North Korea is not something that is imminent.” National security adviser H.R. McMaster said “we’re not closer to war than a week ago.”
This echoed the tempered statements Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made earlier in the week, even as the president was warning of military action.
Officials in the South Korean government have voiced surprise and confusion at Trump’s tough talk of the past week.
Moon, elected as South Korea’s president in May on a pledge to adopt a more conciliatory approach to North Korea, urged Monday that the United States to give diplomacy a chance.
“Peace will not come to the Korean Peninsula by force. Although peace and negotiation are painful and slow, we must pursue this path,” Moon told his advisers ahead of his meeting with Dunford.
Calling the U.S.-South Korea military alliance “an alliance for peace,” Moon said that he was “confident that the U.S. will respond calmly and responsibly to the current situation.” He even suggested that the gap between the allies was not large as both were focused on peace.
Seoul, a vibrant metropolitan area of some 25 million people, lies within range of North Korea’s conventional artillery stationed just 30 miles to the North. Hundreds of thousands of Americans, including more than 28,000 U.S. troops, also live in South Korea.
Moon’s spokesman Park Soo-hyun said, “The president noted the current security conditions on the Korean Peninsula constituted a more serious, real and urgent threat than ever created by the advancement in North Korea’s nuclear and missile technologies.”
The meeting came the day before the anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II, a day known as “Liberation Day” in both North and South Korea because it brought about the end of Japanese colonization.
It also came just a week before the U.S. and South Korean militaries are due to start their annual fall exercises, where they practice responding to an invasion by or the collapse of North Korea. The regime in Pyongyang always strongly objects to the drills, viewing them as a pretext for war.
Gen. Vincent Brooks, the commander of U.S. Forces Korea, said the exercises would go ahead as planned. “The exercises remain important to us and we’ll continue to move forward,” Brooks said, according to Stars and Stripes.
This year both dates are especially significant as North Korea’s military leaders have said they will complete their preparations in “the middle of the month” to launch ballistic missiles toward the Pacific island of Guam, an American territory and home to huge Air Force and Navy bases. North Korea’s military chiefs would then await leader Kim’s instructions, state media have said.
The Korean Central News Agency kept up its tough talk Monday.
“If the U.S. goes reckless by wielding a nuclear stick before its rival armed with nukes despite the repeated warnings of the DPRK, it would precipitate its self-destruction,” the agency said, using the abbreviation for North Korea’s official name. “We are watching every move of the U.S.”
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Anna Fifield