At the height of the North Korean nuclear crisis in 2017, then-U.S. defense chief Jim Mattis feared Washington and Pyongyang were spiraling toward a nuclear war that would “incinerate a couple million people,” according to a new book by journalist Bob Woodward that suggests the two countries were closer to conflict at the time than previously thought.
“Rage,” released last week, reveals scores of instances during the year that highlight the unease felt by many in the highest echelons of the U.S. government, as President Donald Trump responded to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s repeated missile launches with personal barbs and fiery threats.
In one example, Woodward writes about how “for the first year of the Trump presidency, Mattis had been living on permanent alert” and that by late 2017, he was “growing increasingly alarmed about the possibility of a war that could kill millions.”
Although Mattis did not believe Trump would launch a preemptive strike on North Korea, plans for such a war were on hand, Woodward wrote.
“The Strategic Command in Omaha had carefully reviewed and studied OPLAN 5027 for regime change in North Korea — the U.S. response to an attack that could include the use of 80 nuclear weapons. A plan for a leadership strike, OPLAN 5015, had also been updated,” he wrote.
Mattis, who was always accompanied when moving by an entire communications team, was also imbued by Trump with the power to issue an order to shoot if a North Korean missile appeared to threaten the U.S. or its allies South Korea and Japan.
Throughout 2017, North Korea conducted 21 test launches, including two over Japan in August and September, as well as firing its most powerful weapon, the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile, in November. Experts believe that the missile is capable of striking most if not all of the continental United States.
In August, after a North Korean Hwasong-12 intermediate range ballistic missile flew over Hokkaido, Mattis could see that military pressure was not being felt or seen by Pyongyang, Woodward wrote.
“He began looking for more aggressive response options and wondered if they should take some actual bombing action in a North Korean port to send the message,” he wrote.
Earlier that month, Trump had threatened to rain “fire and fury” on the North and “totally destroy” the country if it were to attack the country or its allies. His rhetoric, unseen by a U.S. president until that point, also included personal attacks on Kim and his regime, with Trump famously labeling the North Korean leader “rocket man.”
The book also pointed to two underreported events that highlighted just how precarious the situation on the Korean Peninsula had become from July to September.
The first came on July 5, following Pyongyang’s first launch of an ICBM that could reach the U.S. — despite Trump’s guarantee that he would prevent the North from acquiring such a capability.
According to the book, Gen. Vincent Brooks, the commander of the U.S. and South Korean alliance at the time, ordered a U.S. Army tactical missile to be fired as a demonstration and warning.
But this was no ordinary response to the North Korean launch. It was an example of what the U.S. military calls “a deep strike precision capability” that enables it “to engage the full array of time critical targets under all weather conditions.”
With the blessing of Mattis, the missile was launched from a beach along a path running parallel to the North-South border. It traveled 186 miles (299 kilometers) into the East Sea — the exact same distance as from the launching point of the U.S. missile to the North Korean missile test site where Kim had watched the launch from a tent. Media reports at the time said that the U.S. had even watched Kim for 70 minutes before the missile was launched.
“The meaning was meant to be clear: Kim Jong Un needed to worry about his personal safety,” Woodward wrote.
But intelligence found no signs that the North had realized the U.S. missile “could have easily been aimed north at the test site or at Kim,” although evidence that they recognized the message may simply not have been captured.
Another example that could have ended in miscalculation was a Sept. 23 “simulated air attack” in which the U.S. Air Force sent B-1 bombers and some 20 other planes, “including cyber-capable aircraft,” to cross, at sea, the Northern Limit Line that separates South and North Korea, wrote Woodward.
While the planes stopped short of entering into North Korean territorial airspace or over the North itself, the flight “was an extremely provocative action” that Woodward said prompted the South Korean National Security Council to meet with President Moon Jae-in and send word that the United States “may have gone too far with North Korea.”
The Pentagon released a brief statement after the flight, noting that it had been “the farthest north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) any U.S. fighter or bomber aircraft have flown off North Korea’s coast in the 21st century” and calling it “a clear message that the president has many military options to defeat any threat.”
South Korea’s spy agency said shortly after the simulated strike that the North may have failed to detect the warplanes, and speculation emerged that the U.S. seemed to have intentionally disclosed the flight route since Pyongyang had appeared unaware.
This prompted North Korea’s foreign minister to claim that Trump had declared war on his country and that Pyongyang reserved the right to take countermeasures, including shooting down U.S. bombers — even if they were not in its airspace.
But details of the simulated attack had not been explained publicly, according to Woodward.
The American people — and perhaps even North Korea — “had little idea that July through September of 2017 had been so dangerous,” Woodward wrote.
The U.S. has said that it wants “to bring Kim Jong Un to his senses, not his knees” over his nuclear weapons program and that regime change is not Washington’s ultimate goal. But regime security is believed to have been one of the primary drivers behind North Korea’s quest for long-range missiles capable of delivering nukes to U.S. cities, experts say.
According to Van Jackson, a former Pentagon official and author of “On the Brink,” a book examining how close the U.S. and North Korea came to nuclear war three years ago, while some of Woodward’s anecdotes are new, they are merely a handful of dozens of events he found where there was a substantial risk of miscalculation or misperception leading to inadvertent escalation, some even more dangerous than the ones Woodward recounts.
“We got lucky that Kim stayed strategic rather than get baited into kinetic tit-for-tat, and we got lucky that sometimes he failed to perceive some of our signals that might’ve tipped him into a preemptive attack,” said Jackson.
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