SEOUL/BEIJING – Tension on the Korean peninsula eased slightly on Monday as South Korea’s president said resolving North Korea’s nuclear ambitions must be done peacefully and U.S. officials played down the risk of an imminent war.
Concern that North Korea is close to achieving its goal of putting the mainland United States within range of a nuclear weapon has underpinned a spike in tension in recent months.
U.S. President Donald Trump warned at the weekend that the U.S. military was “locked and loaded” if North Korea acted unwisely after threatening last week to land missiles near the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam.
“There must be no more war on the Korean peninsula. Whatever ups and downs we face, the North Korean nuclear situation must be resolved peacefully,” South Korean President Moon Jae-in told a regular meeting with senior aides and advisers.
“I am certain the United States will respond to the current situation calmly and responsibly in a stance that is equal to ours,” he said.
While backing Trump’s tough talk, U.S. officials including national security adviser H.R. McMaster played down the risk on Sunday of the rhetoric escalating into conflict.
“I think we’re not closer to war than a week ago, but we are closer to war than we were a decade ago,” McMaster told ABC News’ “This Week.”
U.S. Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo said North Korean leader Kim Jong Un might conduct another missile test but talk of being on the cusp of a nuclear war was overstating the risk.
“I’ve seen no intelligence that would indicate that we’re in that place today,” Pompeo told “Fox News Sunday.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a commentary in the Wall Street Journal the United States was adopting a policy of “strategic accountability” toward North Korea, and was applying diplomatic and economic pressure “to achieve the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and a dismantling of the regime’s ballistic-missile programs.”
“While diplomacy is our preferred means of changing North Korea’s course of action, it is backed by military options,” they said.
Also Monday, the top U.S. military officer said that the United States wants to peacefully resolve the standoff but is also ready to use the “full range” of its military capabilities in case of provocation.
The comments by Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford in a series of meetings with senior South Korean military and political officials and the local media appeared to be part of attempts to ease the regional tensions.
Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is visiting South Korea, Japan and China.
“We are seeking a peaceful resolution to the crisis,” Dunford, who also met with South Korean President Moon, said to reporters, according to a local pool report.
He earlier told his South Korean counterparts that America is ready “to use the full range of military capabilities to defend our allies and the U.S. homeland,” according to U.S. military spokesman Capt. Darryn James.
Dunford earlier told reporters traveling with him to Asia that he aims to “sense what the temperature is in the region.” He also will discuss military options in the event the “diplomatic and economic pressurization campaign” fails.
“We’re all looking to get out of this situation without a war,” Dunford said.
World stocks rallied as investors took heart from the less bellicose rhetoric.
However, North Korea reiterated its threats, with its official KCNA news agency saying “war cannot be blocked by any power if sparks fly due to a small, random incident that was unintentional.”
“Any second Korean War would have no choice but to spread into a nuclear war,” it said in a commentary.
South Korean Vice Defence Minister Suh Choo-suk agreed North Korea was likely to continue provocations, including nuclear tests, but did not see a big risk of the North engaging in actual military conflict.
Suh again highlighted doubts about North Korea’s claims about its military capability.
“Both the United States and South Korea do not believe North Korea has yet completely gained re-entry technology in material engineering terms,” Suh said in remarks televised on Sunday for a Korea Broadcasting System show.
The United States and South Korea remain technically still at war with North Korea after the 1950-53 Korean conflict ended with a truce, not a peace treaty.
Tension in the region has risen since North Korea carried out two nuclear bomb tests last year and two intercontinental ballistic missile tests in July, tests it often conducts to coincide with important national dates.
Tuesday marks the anniversary of Japan’s expulsion from the Korean peninsula, a rare holiday celebrated by both the North and the South. Moon and Kim, who has not been seen publicly for several days, are both expected to make addresses on their respective sides of the heavily militarized border.
Trump has urged China, the North’s main ally and trading partner, to do more to rein in its neighbor, often linking Beijing’s efforts to comments around U.S.-China trade. China strenuously rejects linking the two issues.
Trump will issue an order later on Monday to determine whether to investigate Chinese trade practices that force U.S. firms operating in China to turn over intellectual property, senior administration officials said on Saturday.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said that Beijing has said many times the essence of China-U.S. trade and business ties is mutual benefit and that there is no future in any trade war between China and the United States.
“The (Korean) peninsula issue and trade and business issues are in a different category from each other,” Hua added. “On these two issues, China and the United States should respect each other and increase cooperation. Using one issue as a tool for exerting pressure on another is clearly inappropriate.”
China’s Commerce Ministry issued an order on Monday banning imports of coal, iron ore, lead concentrates and ore, lead and sea food from North Korea, effective from Tuesday.
The move followed the announcement of U.N. sanctions against North Korea this month which have to be enforced within 30 days by member-states.
Moon separately called Monday for a peaceful solution to the nuclear standoff, saying that “there must not be another war on the Korean Peninsula,” according to his office.
In a meeting with top aides at the presidential Blue House, Moon said South Korea would work to safeguard peace on the peninsula in cooperation with the United States and other countries. Moon said North Korea must stop issuing menacing statements and provoking.
North Korea, which is angry over the new United Nations sanctions, continued its tough stance on Monday.
The North accused the United States of mobilizing a huge number of weapons and troops for annual military drills with South Korea that begin later this month. Pyongyang, which claims the drills are war preparation, says it will be ready to send its Guam missile launch plan to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for approval just before or as the drills begin.
Trump’s recent threats followed a report that U.S. intelligence indicates North Korea can now put a nuclear warhead on its long-range missiles.
For all his bluster, Trump’s words did not appear to be backed by significant military mobilization on either side of the Pacific, and an important, quiet diplomatic channel remained open.