With just two days to go until North Korea's "Day of the Sun" celebrations, when as reported yesterday it may conduct its 6th nuclear test at the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site, NBC reports citing multiple senior U.S. intelligence officials that in the latest stepwise escalation, the U.S. is prepared to launch a preemptive strike with conventional weapons against North Korea should officials become convinced that Kim Jong-Un's nation North Korea is about to follow through with a nuclear weapons test. Note: North Korea does not even have to carry out the text: mere conviction on the side of the US that it would, is sufficient.
As first reported yesterday, North Korea warned that a "big event" is near, and U.S. officials say signs point to a nuclear test that could come as early as this weekend. According to multiple sources, the U.S. intelligence community has reported with "moderate confidence" that North Korea is preparing for its sixth underground nuclear test, though the U.S. is also in the dark regarding the specific timing.
The launch of a preemptive attack would naturally threatens a counterattack by Kim: the U.S. is thus "worried" that its strikes could provoke the volatile and unpredictable North Korean regime to launch its own blistering attack on its southern neighbor. "The leadership in North Korea has shown absolutely no sign or interest in diplomacy or dialogue with any of the countries involved in this issue," said Victor Cha, the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Meanwhile, intelligence officials have told NBC News that the U.S. Navy has positioned two destroyers capable of shooting Tomahawk cruise missiles in the region, one just 300 miles from the North Korean nuclear test site. Additionally, American heavy bombers are also positioned in Guam to attack North Korea should it be necessary, and earlier this week, the Pentagon announced that the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier strike group was being diverted to the area.
Earlier in the week, North Korea said it would "hit the U.S. first" with a nuclear weapon should there be any signs of U.S. strikes. On Thursday, North Korea warned of a "merciless retaliatory strike" should the U.S. take any action. It is almost as if the U.S. is eager to provoke the "irrational" North Korean dictator.
"By relentlessly bringing in a number of strategic nuclear assets to the Korean peninsula, the US is gravely threatening the peace and safety and driving the situation to the brink of a nuclear war," said North Korea's statement, which actually sounded quite rational and measured.
Futhermore, virtually everyone knows that Kim's threats are those of a paper tiger: North Korea is not believed to have a deliverable long-range nuclear weapon, according to U.S. experts, nor does it yet possess an intercontinental missile. Which begs the question: why is the US getting involved in yet another regime change operation half way around the world?
South Korea's top diplomat said today that the U.S. would consult with Seoul before taking any serious measures, or at least he hoped: "U.S. officials, mindful of such concerns here, repeatedly reaffirmed that (the U.S.) will closely discuss with South Korea its North Korea-related measures," foreign minister Yun Byung told a special parliamentary meeting. "In fact, the U.S. is working to reassure us that it will not, just in case that we might hold such concerns."
Of course, if the U.S. does not "closely discuss" any pre-strike plans, then... oops.
In any case, a new war may break out as soon as this weekend: "Two things are coming together this weekend," said retired Adm. James Stavridis, former commander of NATO and an NBC analyst. "One is the distinct possibility of a sixth North Korean nuclear weapons detonation and the other is an American carrier strike group, a great deal of firepower headed right at the Korean Peninsula."
The U.S. is aware that simply preparing an attack, even if it will only be launched if there is an "imminent" North Korean action, increases the danger of provoking a large conflict, multiple sources told NBC News.
"It's high stakes," a senior intelligence official directly involved in the planning told NBC News. "We are trying to communicate our level of concern and the existence of many military options to dissuade the North first."
"It's a feat that we've never achieved before but there is a new sense of resolve here," the official said, referring to the White House.
The unofficial admission that a preemptive strike is imminent comes on the same day the U.S. announced the use of its MOAB in Afghanistan, attacking underground facilities, and on the heels of U.S. missile strikes on a Syrian airbase last week, a strike that took place while President Trump was meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago.
Earlier today, Trump gave China what amounted to a tacit ultimatum: deal with North Korea, or Trump will.
I have great confidence that China will properly deal with North Korea. If they are unable to do so, the U.S., with its allies, will! U.S.A.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 13, 2017
And as the clock is ticking, officials have told NBC that Trump has talked to Chinese president Xi twice about North Korea since their Florida summit.
China has since sent its top nuclear negotiators to Pyongyang to communicate the gravity of the situation to the North, officials say. On Wednesday, President Xi called for a peaceful resolution to the escalating tensions.
It's not just China: "Moscow has weighed in as well: "We are gravely concerned about Washington's plans regarding North Korea, considering hints about the unilateral use of a military scenario" the Putin government said in a press release issued on Tuesday."
Ultimately, the only thing standing between Kim and a Tomahawk is a decision by South Korea, where as a reminder, the political regime has been in chaos since the impeachment of former president Park.
Implementation of the preemptive U.S. plans, according to multiple U.S. officials, depends centrally on consent of the South Korean government. The sources stress that Seoul has got to be persuaded that action is worth the risk, as there is universal concern that any military move might provoke a North Korean attack, even a conventional attack across the DMZ.
Tensions have escalated on the Korean Peninsula, as this Saturday marks the anniversary of the birth of the nation's founder — Kim il-Sung, grandfather of the current leader, Kim Jong-un. At the highest levels in South Korea and the U.S., sources told NBC News, there are fears North Korea could mark the "Day of the Sun" by testing a nuclear device. As discussed yesterday, North Korea in the past has used these national holidays to celebrate the strengths of the regime and to reinforce the national narrative of their independence, as confirmed by Cha.
"I think that is what President Trump is getting trying to get the Chinese to do," said Cha. "[It] would impose real pain and force real choices on North Korea — whether the costs are worth it for them to continue to pursue this program if they no longer have any sustenance."
In addition to the coal ships, the Chinese made an important gesture at the UN Thursday: A surprising abstention on a Security Council resolution condemning a Syrian chemical weapons attack. China didn't stand with the Russians on Syria, as it has in the past.
But the biggest indicator may have been the market: for the first time in month, the S&P closed on the lowest tick of the day ahead of a long weekend, almost as if traders had no desire to go long into a the 72 hours in which there is a non-trivial chance that, in some form or another, a nuclear device may go off, coupled with the launch of an unknown number of US Tomahawk missiles.