U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis hinted Monday that Washington retained military options against nuclear-armed North Korea that he said would not leave Seoul at risk of devastating retaliatory strikes.
Mattis declined to elaborate when pressed, according to a transcript of his remarks, but echoed U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, who said Sunday that there are “a whole lot of military options on the table.”
“Ambassador Haley is correct,” Mattis said. “There are many military options, in concert with our allies that we will take to defend our allies and our own interests.”
Haley had said the U.N. Security Council had run out of options on containing North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, and that Washington may have to turn the matter over to the Pentagon.
Pressed on whether the military options included so-called kinetic options that use lethal force, Mattis said: “I don’t want to go into that.”
Experts, analysts — and even Mattis, himself — have said that any eruption of conflict on the Korean Peninsula would be “catastrophic” not only for Americans and South Koreans, but potentially for Japanese, as well.
Mattis told Congress in June that any such war would be “more serious in terms of human suffering than anything we have seen since 1953,” resulting in the “massive shelling” of Seoul while also putting Japan in harm’s way.
Daniel Pinkston, an East Asia expert at Troy University in Seoul, said Mattis’ remarks were “nothing new” and provided no indication the U.S. is seriously considering a preventive war with North Korea.
“If the leadership of a country contemplates the use of force, they must ask themselves: ‘Using force against whom, under what conditions, and to achieve what?’ ” Pinkston said, adding that military options have long been in place to uphold the Korean War armistice and bilateral security alliance commitments with Seoul and Tokyo.
The U.S. and South Korea are technically still at war with North Korea because the 1950-53 Korean conflict ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty. Japan is seen by Pyongyang as a potential logistics hub in the event of any contingency on the Korean Peninsula and would likely be a target in such a case.
Pyongyang accuses Washington — which has 28,500 troops in South Korea and 47,000 service members in Japan — of planning to invade, and regularly threatens to destroy it and its Asian allies.
Pinkston said it was natural for the allies to plan and talk about “contingencies that require military responses. But using force against North Korea in response to the current conditions today? I think that is a fantasy. I just don’t see it.”
North Korea has made blistering progress in its nuclear and missile programs under the rule of leader Kim Jong Un, as it seeks to master the technology needed to reliably target the United States with a nuclear-tipped long-range missile. Under Kim, it has conducted four nuclear tests and dozens of test-firings and training launches, including two in July of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that experts say is capable of striking a large chunk of the U.S.
On Friday, the North also lobbed an intermediate-range missile over Japan and into the Pacific Ocean for the second time in under three weeks. That missile traveled some 3,700 km, stoking concern in Tokyo and putting the U.S. territory of Guam, home to key American military bases, easily within striking distance.
On Sept. 3, the North also conducted its most powerful nuclear test to date, a blast that Tokyo estimated to be as large as 160 kilotons — more than 10 times the size of the Hiroshima bomb.
Although any conflict on the Korean Peninsula would risk a wider conflagration, some officials in the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump have taken a harder line on the issue.
On Friday, national security adviser H.R. McMaster warned that the United States was fast running out of patience.
“We’ve been kicking the can down the road, and we’re out of road” on North Korea, he said.
Malcolm Davis, a senior defense analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said it was now important to “take the military option very seriously.”
“The U.S. knows it is running out of time as North Korea continues to move inexorably toward its goal of a credible operational nuclear weapons capability against” the continental United States, Davis said. “That ticking clock raises the concern that maybe the U.S. would not be prepared to risk Seattle for Seoul, and so has to act before the North Koreans could threaten the U.S.”
But, despite Trump’s sometimes aggressive remarks, including a vow to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea if it threatens the United States, Davis said the U.S. recognizes that “there is no easy ‘military quick fix.’ ”
“If they are going to do the military option, they need to start preparing for that now — including deploying forces, evacuating civilians, and getting their forces ready for some serious activity on a scale far beyond what you saw in (the) Persian Gulf (in) ’91 or Iraq (in) 2003.”
So far, none of those preparations has been observed, though the U.S. military has ramped up the pace of bilateral exercises with its top Asian allies. A sequenced exercise Monday over Japan and near the two Koreas’ border involved a total of 14 advanced fighter jets and heavy bombers.
The North has also continued to test just how far it can press the U.S. with its launches and nuclear test, prompting some concerns about American capabilities in the region.
Asked why the U.S. did not attempt a shoot-down of the missiles that overflew Japan, Mattis on Monday played down the threat.
North Korea is “intentionally doing provocations that seem to press against the envelope for just how far can they push without going over some kind of a line in their minds that would make them vulnerable,” Mattis said.
But, he said, any future missile launch that threatens U.S. or Japanese territory will “elicit a different response from us.”
Mattis also confirmed that Washington and Seoul had discussed returning tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea, where support has grown for such a move as a potential response to North Korea’s actions.
The defense chief, however, was coy on whether the weapons would be returned to the peninsula after being withdrawn in the early 1990s at the end of the Cold War.
“We discussed the option, but that’s all … I want to say,” Mattis said.
A group of South Korean lawmakers from the opposition Liberty Party Korea said in a statement Sunday that the U.S. government was cool to the idea during a visit to Washington to meet State Department officials, members of Congress and scholars.
“The State Department expressed its understanding of South Koreans’ concerns but was negative to the idea of redeploying tactical nukes out of concern about a possible escalation of regional tensions, and in line with the U.S. position toward denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula, they said in the statement.