How close is the US to war with North Korea? That was the question several top military and national security advisors struggled to answer over the weekend, mitigating fears of an imminent nuclear war even as Trump raises geopolitical tensions and boosts bellicose rhetoric with every public appearance.
Speaking on "Fox News Sunday", and walking a fine line of backing Trump's tough talk but not wanting to raise the alarm at home, CIA Director Mike Pompeo said there’s no indication war will break out.
“I’ve heard folks talking about that we’re on the cusp of a nuclear war. I’ve seen no intelligence that would indicate that we’re in that place today.” As Bloomberg adds, Pompeo also said that the nation’s intelligence watchers - who have monitored recent ICBM tests and North Korea’s improved ability to manufacture nuclear weapons - “have a pretty good idea” about their near-term intentions. "This administration has made our policy very clear. We’ve engaged the world to support that policy," Pompeo told host Chris Wallace.
In his first Sunday show interview since becoming the head of the CIA, the former Republican congressman from Kansas emphasized that the era of “strategic patience” with Kim Jong-Un is over. "Each time they test another missile, or if they should conduct a nuclear weapons test, they develop expertise. They expand the envelope,” he said. In a later interview with CBS's "Face the Nation," Pompeo said containment does not make sense for a North Korea policy.
"President Trump finds that unacceptable," Pompeo said according to The Hill, referencing an op-ed by former national security adviser Susan Rice that said the United States could "tolerate" a nuclear North Korea.
Pompeo's sentiment was echoed by national security adviser H.R. McMaster who appeared on ABC’s “This Week,” said “we’re not closer to war than a week ago, but we are closer to war than we were a decade ago."
Asked if the US is "locked and loaded" as Trump tweeted last week, McMaster responded that "the United States military is locked and loaded everyday." McMaster also added that the threat from North Korea to the world is "very, very clear." "It demands a concerted effort by the United States, but with our allies and with all responsible nations". "And this is what you've seen the president do is bring together all nations."
The president "made clear that the United States will not tolerate our citizens or our allies being threatened by this rogue regime," McMaster added and said that "there's a much greater danger if there were to be any kind of degree of ambiguity in connection with the kind of response that Kim Jong Un could expect if he were to threaten the United States or our allies."
Separately, just days after Trump's abovementioned comment that military options against North Korea were “locked and loaded,” General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, plans to meet with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Monday. Dunford will also meet with senior military officials along with Moon, according to an official with South Korea’s Blue House Bloomberg reports. He will head to China next on the previously scheduled visit, Yonhap News Agency reported, citing an unidentified military official.
The visit comes as fears grow that a war of words between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un will create a miscalculation that sparks an actual military conflict. In a call with Trump on Saturday in Asia, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for all sides to maintain restraint and avoid inflammatory comments. A tweet from the joint chiefs on Sunday showed him arriving at Yokota Air Base in Japan.
Dunford said the purpose of his Monday visit to Seoul, which sits just 35 miles south of the border with North Korea, is to reassure a critical ally. He is expected to examine the options the U.S. and South Korean militaries could execute if a conflict were to come to pass, officials said.
In his first public remarks since the crisis escalated with North Korea’s launch of a second intercontinental ballistic missile late last month, Dunford said that “as a military leader, I have to make sure that the president does have viable military options in the event that the diplomatic and economic pressurization campaign fails."
“Even as we develop those options, we are mindful of the consequences of executing those options, and that makes us have more of a sense of urgency to make sure that we’re doing everything we absolutely can to support Secretary Tillerson’s current path,” he said quoted by the WSJ. He declined to provide an assessment of the current situation until he had met with officials on the ground. But while the U.S. military in the region is prepared for war, it isn’t necessarily preparing for war, other military officials said.
Dunford is also set to discuss with Mr. Moon the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or Thaad missile defense system. After extensive discussion between the U.S. and South Korea, a Thaad battery was deployed near a golf course in South Korea this spring to help defend against any missile launches from the north. Only two of the six launchers were deployed and the U.S. and South Korea are now in talks to deploy the system with its full complement of launchers, U.S. Pacific Command officials said. Meantime, the U.S. and South Korea will soon begin their annual joint military exercises, known as Ulchi Freedom Guardian, a two-week command and control exercise that primarily tests the integration of U.S. and South Korean forces.
U.S. defense officials said the exercise isn’t expected to amount to a large show of force and that there are no plans for expansion under the current circumstances. Ulchi Freedom Guardian, or UFG as it is called, typically sees an additional 200 to 300 U.S. troops here for the next couple of weeks.
Meanwhile, suggesting that war is indeed not imminent, the WSJ adds that no additional forces have been sent to the Korean Peninsula as a result of the crisis, and there has been no new deployment of ships or submarines. The more than 28,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea haven't been put on special alert, military officials said. And, the fact that Gen. Dunford and his wife, Ellyn, are traveling in the region this week reinforces the sense that there is no imminent threat of war.
Still, as Mr. Trump continues to tweet about U.S. posture, saying the military is “locked and loaded” and ready to fight, the military hasn’t shied away from sending its own signals. In recent days, the U.S. touted a flyover by a pair of its B-1B strategic bombers, an event it rarely announces publicly.
And, in the wake of each of North Korea’s two intercontinental ballistic missile launches last month, the U.S.’s Eighth Army blasted missiles using the Army Tactical Missile System, or ATACMS, to counter the threat. South Korea simultaneously launched its own Hyunmoo Missile II system.
Even as the U.S. military keeps its cards close to its chest, declining to talk publicly about what it might do militarily, a pre-emptive strike on North Korea remains unlikely, military officials have said.
Finally, as people on Guam prepare for the potential of an attack, U.S. military officials acknowledge quietly that Pyongyang’s capabilities make it unlikely Kim could fulfill his pledge to lob missiles toward the island and get them anywhere close. The North Korean leader hasn’t proven he can make the technology work with any precision, an official said. But North Korea has moved faster to develop its capabilities than the U.S. believed it would. Pacific Command officials said they have to take Mr. Kim at his word.
“They have proven through these recent launches that they have increasing range there,” the U.S. Pacific Command official said. “We have to take these threats seriously.”
So while the rhetoric of an imminent war appears to be far ahead of actual process, all that can change should Pyongyang launch yet another ballistic missile test. As reported earlier, satellite images taken in recent days suggest that this may indeed be the case.