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 South Korean leaders 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.
“Nobody’s looking for war,” the Marine general said, according to the newspaper. But he added that the military’s job was to provide “viable military options in the event that deterrence fails.”
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Monday afternoon in Washington that it will be “game on” with North Korea if it hits the United States, including Guam, but he left it much more ambiguous what will happen if Pyongyang decides to shoot missiles near Guam, without attempting to actually hit the U.S. island territory.
“That becomes an issue that we take up, and it’s however the president chooses,” Mattis said. “You can’t make all of those kinds of decisions in advance. There is a host of things going on. There are allies we consult with, as the president made very clear last week when we talked about our allies repeatedly in his statement.”
Mattis added that he needs a “certain amount of ambiguity on this, because I’m not going to tell [Kim] what I’m going to do in each case.” But he warned pointedly: “You don’t shoot at people unless you want to bear the consequences.”
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 U.S. 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.”
“The object of our peaceful pressure campaign is the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wrote in a joint op-ed article published by the Wall Street Journal. “The U.S. has no interest in regime change or accelerated reunification of Korea. We do not seek an excuse to garrison U.S. troops north of the Demilitarized Zone. We have no desire to inflict harm on the long-suffering North Korean people, who are distinct from the hostile regime in Pyongyang.”
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.
After the meeting, Moon’s spokesman said the president had “denounced” North Korea for disturbing the peace in the region with its repeated missile launches.
“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,” spokesman Park Soo-hyun said.
The U.S. and South Korean militaries next week are due to start their annual fall exercises, in which they practice responding to a North Korean invasion or the collapse of the regime in Pyongyang. The North always strongly objects to the drills, viewing them as a pretext for war.
Gen. Vincent Brooks, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, said the exercises would go ahead as planned starting Aug. 21. “The exercises remain important to us and we’ll continue to move forward,” Brooks said, according to Stars and Stripes.
By Anna Fifield and Dan Lamothe
Simon Denyer in Beijing contributed to this report.