With President Donald Trump arriving in Japan today to kick off a 10-day Asia tour, the Washington Post is reporting that the only way to locate and secure all of North Korea’s nuclear weapons sites “with complete certainty” would be a ground invasion, and in the event of conflict, Pyongyang could use biological and chemical weapons, the Pentagon told lawmakers in a newly released assessment of what war on the Korean Peninsula might look like.
The Pentagon, in a letter to lawmakers, said that a full discussion of U.S. capabilities to “counter North Korea’s ability to respond with a nuclear weapon and to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons located in deeply buried, underground facilities” is best suited for a classified briefing.
The letter also said that Pentagon leaders “assess that North Korea may consider the use of biological weapons” and that the country “has a long-standing chemical weapons program with the capability to produce nerve, blister, blood and choking agents."
The Pentagon repeated that a detailed discussion of how the United States would respond to the threat could not be discussed in public.
The letter noted that Seoul, the South Korean capital, is a densely populated area with 25 million residents.
The Pentagon’s candid assessment appears to validate claims made by former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, who famously said in an interview with the American Prospect before he was forced out of his White House job that there are no “good” military options for toppling the Kim regime. A ground invasion, he said, would lead to millions of casualties in the South Korean capital of Seoul from conventional weapons fire.
It’s release also coincides with the president’s push to rally the North’s neighbors in the region to do more to punish the restive Kim regime, which conducted a test of a hydrogen bomb - also its sixth nuclear test overall - in early September.
The North has been notably quiet since Sept. 15, when it launched a medium-range missile over the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. Aside from the usual condemnations of military drills involving US and South Korean, and threats that the North is seriously considering testing a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific. Some have speculated that a partial collapse at the North’s Pyunggye-ri nuclear testing facility has been partly responsible for the delays.
The letter to lawmakers was written by Rear Adm. Michael J. Dumont, the vice director of the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, in response to a request for information from two House members about “expected casualty assessments in a conflict with North Korea,” including for civilians and U.S. and allied forces in South Korea, Japan and Guam.
In the letter, Dumont explains how a ground invasion would unfold.
Any operation to pursue North Korean nuclear weapons would likely be spearheaded by U.S. Special Operations troops. Last year, President Barack Obama and then-Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter gave U.S. Special Operations Command a new, leading role coordinating the Pentagon’s effort to counter weapons of mass destruction. SOCOM did not receive any new legal authorities for the mission but gained influence in how the military responds to such threats.
Elite U.S. forces have long trained to respond in the case of a so-called “loose nuke” in the hands of terrorists. But senior officials said SOCOM is increasingly focused on North Korea.
Given the difficulty and tremendous potential for casualities that would accompany a ground invasion, Dumont affirmed that the military supports the present strategy of pursuing a diplomatic solution to the simmering standoff between the North and the US.
Dumont said the military backs the current U.S. strategy on North Korea, which is led by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and focuses on ratcheting up economic and diplomatic pressure as the primary effort to get North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to stop developing nuclear weapons. Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., have emphasized that during trips to Seoul this year.
In contrast, President Trump, who goes unmentioned in the Pentagon letter, has taunted Kim as “Rocket Man” and expressed frustration with diplomatic efforts, hinting that he is considering preemptive military force.
“I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” Trump tweeted on Oct. 1, adding, “Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!"
On Oct. 7, Trump added in additional tweets that North Korea had “made fools” of U.S. negotiators. “Sorry, but only one thing will work!” he said.
Defense Secretary James Mattis and the Pentagon has often pointed to the massive risk that North Korean weaponry pose to South Koreans living In Seoul. But the military has never before publicly revealed so much about its plans for a hunt for North Korea’s underground weapons.
Air Force Col. Patrick Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, said that Dumont and other Pentagon officials had no additional comment about the letter.
A senior US military official in South Korea told WaPo that while the 28,500 US troops in South Korea maintain a high degree of readiness, he “has to believe” that North Korea does not want a war, given all of the nations aligned against it.
“If you open the history books, this is not the first time that we’ve been in a heavy provocation cycle,” the official said. On the side of South Korea and the United States, he said, “there is no action taken without extreme consideration of not putting this in a position where a fight is going to happen."
Dumont’s letter also notes that “we have not seen any change in the offensive posture of North Korea’s forces."
A statement by 16 lawmakers, released simultaneously with the Pentagon letter, urged Trump to stop making “provocative statements” that impede diplomatic efforts and risk the lives of U.S. troops.
One lawmaker cited estimates that a ground invasion of the North would leave 300,000 people dead in the first couple of days.
The Pentagon’s “assessment underscores what we’ve known all along: There are no good military options for North Korea,” said the statement, organized by Lieu and Gallego and signed by 14 other members of Congress who are veterans, all but one of them Democrats. In a telephone interview, Lieu said that the intent of asking the Pentagon for information was to spell out the cataclysmic consequences of war with North Korea and the aftermath.
“It’s important for people to understand what a war with a nuclear power would look like,” said Lieu, citing estimates of 300,000 dead in the first few days alone. More than 100,000 Americans are potentially at risk.
Lieu, who spent part of his time in the Air Force on Guam preparing for military action against North Korea, called the letter a confirmation that a conflict would result in a “bloody, protracted ground war.” The Joint Chiefs, he believes, are “trying to send a message to the American public,” he said.
“This is grim,” Lieu said. “We need to understand what war means. And it hasn’t been articulated very well. I think they’re trying to articulate some of that."
The question now is: Will this report undermine Trump’s efforts to push the US’s allies in the Pacific to do more to peacefully pressure the Kim regime to abandon its nuclear weapons program. China and Russia have for months been pushing a plan that would see the North freeze its nuclear program in exchange for the US withdrawing its THAAD missile defense systems from South Korea.
The Kim regime has repeatedly said it will never give up its nuclear weapons, which it believes are essential for the survival of the regime.