U.S. told Japan it could resort to military action against North Korea unless China steps up pressure: sources

Kyodo, Staff Report, Reuters, JIJI

The United States told Japan prior to a U.S.-China summit last week that it could resort to military action against North Korea unless Beijing steps up pressure on Pyongyang to curb its nuclear and missile ambitions, according to diplomatic sources.

According to the sources, a senior State Department official explained the position to Japanese officials when they met earlier this month, noting that U.S. President Donald Trump was also expected to convey the position to Chinese President Xi Jinping.

However, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga was quick to dismiss the report at a Wednesday news conference.

“There are no facts like that. I’d like to clearly deny” the report, Suga told reporters at the Prime Minister’s Office in unusually blunt language.

While Suga said “Japan and the U.S. have closely coordinated policies by exchanging views at various levels” on North Korean issues, the report could indicate Washington’s eagerness to work in tandem with Tokyo to encourage China to take concrete actions to pressure Pyongyang.

The sources quoted the State Department official as saying there were only two options for dealing with the North — either China steps up pressure or the U.S. strikes.

Tokyo, however, is concerned that a U.S. strike on North Korea could trigger retaliatory attacks on both South Korea and Japan.

The position is also at odds with a report in the Wall Street Journal citing a senior U.S. official as saying that Trump had signed off on a policy approach on the North “that involves increased economic and political pressure, while military options remain under consideration longer term.”

Military options, the Journal cited the official as saying, were “on the back burner.”

However, according to the sources, the State Department official’s remarks prompted the Japanese government to believe that a military strike was fast becoming a realistic option for Washington.

Trump held telephone talks with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last Thursday and was quoted as telling him the U.S. considered all options were on the table in dealing with the North.

Trump then met Xi at his Florida resort for two days through last Friday, during which the U.S. president asserted that if Beijing did not step up pressure on Pyongyang, Washington was ready to take unilateral action.

Tokyo has also asked Washington to assist in the rescue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea decades ago in the event of a contingency on the Korean Peninsula, Abe suggested Wednesday.

In a meeting with Eriko Yamatani, chairwoman of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s Headquarters for North Korean Abductions, Abe said his government had asked for U.S. cooperation on rescuing abductees in the event of a crisis.

The United States and Japan are growing wary over North Korea’s progress in its nuclear and missile development. North Korea has shown signs of preparing to test an intercontinental ballistic missile, which could potentially deliver a nuclear warhead to continental U.S.

Satellite imagery also appears to indicate that the nation is readying for a sixth nuclear test.

In Tokyo, two sources said the Maritime Self-Defense Force is planning joint drills with the U.S. Navy’s Carl Vinson-led carrier strike group as it steams toward the Korean Peninsula in a display of military power aimed at deterring the North from further missile tests.

The MSDF may conduct helicopter landings on each other’s ships, as well as communication drills, as the USS Carl Vinson and its escort ships pass through waters close to Japanese territory, the sources said.

“Japan wants to dispatch several destroyers as the Carl Vinson enters the East China Sea,” one of the sources said.

One of the sources has direct knowledge of the plan, while the other has been briefed on the exercises. MSDF officials did not immediately respond when asked for comment.

The display of U.S.-Japan naval power close to China could upset Beijing, which is locked in a territorial dispute with Tokyo over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. The uninhabited islets are known as the Diaoyus in China.

The Carl Vinson strike group, which canceled a planned visit to Australia, is sailing from Singapore. The 100,000-ton Nimitz-class vessel is powered by two nuclear reactors and carries almost 100 aircraft.

Amid the surging tensions in Northeast Asia, Japan’s Foreign Ministry on Tuesday issued a safety notice for travelers heading to South Korea, urging them to “pay attention to the situation on the Korean Peninsula.”

“Currently a hazard warning has not been issued as the situation in South Korea is not immediately affecting the safety of Japanese people,” the ministry said on its website.

“However, we have issued the notice this time amid North Korea’s repeated nuclear tests and ballistic-missile launches,” it added. “Please continue to pay attention to information on the situation.”

Asked about the notice, Suga said the Foreign Ministry had posted it after the ministry received inquires from a number of nervous Japanese travelers planning to visit South Korea.

“You don’t need to refrain from going to or staying in (the South) at the moment,” he said. “But you should pay attention to information (on the North Korean situation).”