North Korea renewed its threat to the American Pacific territory of Guam on Friday as the U.S. and South Korean militaries geared up for 10 days of joint naval exercises set to kick off next week.
The drills “to promote communications, interoperability, and partnership” are scheduled to take place in the waters to South Korea’s east and west and will involve the Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture-based USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier, the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet said in a statement.
The exercises — the latest show of force by the U.S. and its allies — will come amid soaring tensions with nuclear-armed North Korea that has seen Washington ramp up its deployment of so-called strategic military assets to the region.
On Friday, the 7th Fleet also announced that the nuclear-powered submarine USS Michigan, which is armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles, had arrived from Guam at the South Korean port of Busan “for a routine visit.”
On Tuesday, the U.S. sent powerful B-1B heavy bombers from Guam for exercises with the South Korean Air Force over the Korean Peninsula as President Donald Trump gathered his top national security advisers to discuss “a range of options” for dealing with the North’s nuclear ambitions.
Trump said Friday that the U.S. is “always open” to negotiations, but appeared to suggest that military options also remained available.
Trump last week issued a veiled threat to Pyongyang in a series of tweets deriding past U.S. leaders’ attempts to solve the intractable North Korean nuclear issue, saying that “only one thing” could bring the crisis to a close — an apparent allusion to military action.
During a dinner with top American military brass two days earlier, the mercurial U.S. leader also appeared to raise the prospect of military action when he cryptically called the meeting “the calm before the storm.”
Asked to clarify that statement Friday, Trump was noncommittal, saying: “We’re going to see what happens with North Korea. That’s all I can say.”
However, he did leave the door open to talks.
“If something can happen where we negotiate, I’m always open to that,” he said. “But if it’s going to be something other than negotiation, believe me, we are ready, more so than we have ever been.”
Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have traded barbs in recent months, with the U.S. president labeling Kim a “rocket man … on a suicide mission” and Kim returning fire, calling the American leader a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard.”
Beyond the personal insults, Trump has threatened to “totally destroy” the North if Pyongyang threatens the United States and its allies. Kim, meanwhile, unveiled a plan in August to fire a salvo of intermediate-range missiles to bracket the island of Guam — some 3,400 km from Pyongyang — with “enveloping fire.”
Although Kim later walked back that plan, on Friday a researcher with the North Korean Foreign Ministry’s Institute for American Studies warned in a commentary run by the official Korean Central News Agency that the scheduled joint exercises, as well as recent flights by the U.S. strategic bombers, could force Pyongyang’s hand in “taking the toughest countermeasure.”
The researcher, Kim Kwang Hak, did not detail what that would mean, but reiterated the North’s earlier plan to target the area around Guam, home to the sprawling U.S. air base where the B-1Bs are based.
“We have already warned several times that we will take counteractions for self-defense including a salvo of missiles into waters near the U.S. territory of Guam, an advance base for invading the DPRK,” he said, according to the commentary.
“The U.S. military action hardens our determination that the U.S. should be tamed with fire and lets us take our hand closer to ‘trigger’ … the toughest countermeasure,” the researcher said.
While the 7th Fleet said in its statement that next week’s exercises would “provide a visible and coordinated engagement” for the U.S. and South Korea, the North views such drills as a rehearsal for invasion and routinely lashes out at them.
On Saturday, South Korea’s Dong-a Ilbo daily, citing U.S. and South Korean intelligence officials, reported that ballistic missiles mounted on transporter-erecter-launchers (TELs) had been spotted in three to four regions in North Korea, a sign it could soon test a long- or intermediate-range missile.
The report said a U.S. satellite had recently captured images of the missile-mounted TELs being transported out of a hangar to areas near Pyongyang and North Pyongan Province.
Intelligence officials said they viewed the move as a sign of preparations for launching of a missile comparable to the Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile or Hwasong-12 intermediate-range missile, the report said, adding that the North could also test-fire a new Hwasong-13 solid-fueled ICBM, which may have a longer range than its Hwasong-14 counterpart.
The heated tensions between the U.S. and North Korea come amid signals from Trump that Washington’s patience with Pyongyang is wearing thin following its sixth and most powerful nuclear test last month and its two recent Hwasong-12 missile launches over U.S. ally Japan.
Leader Kim has overseen a spate of tests to master the technology needed to reliably target the United States with a nuclear-tipped long-range missile, conducting dozens of test-firings and training launches since last year. In July, the North twice tested a Hwasong-14 that experts say is capable of striking a large chunk of the U.S.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.