A top Republican lawmaker has urged the Pentagon to begin moving U.S. military dependents — wives and children — out of South Korea, warning that war with nuclear-armed North Korea is “getting close.”
The warning by Sen. Lindsey Graham came as the U.S. kicked off a massive joint aerial exercise with South Korea involving 12,000 U.S. personnel and more than 230 aircraft from both countries, including advanced U.S. stealth fighter jets.
“It’s crazy to send spouses and children to South Korea, given the provocation of North Korea,” Graham, a member of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “So I want them to stop sending dependents. And I think it’s now time to start moving American dependents out of South Korea.”
Graham, who is close to U.S. President Donald Trump, said the North’s test-firing of an intercontinental ballistic missile Wednesday that could potentially reach hit all of the continental United States had made the threat of military conflict erupting more of a possibility.
“We’re getting close to military conflict because North Korea is marching toward marrying up the technology of an ICBM with the nuclear weapon on top that cannot only get to America, but deliver the weapon,” he said. “We’re running out of time.”
The Trump administration’s policy, he said, is “to deny North Korea the capability to hit America with a nuclear-tipped missile. Not to contain it.”
“Denial means pre-emptive war as a last resort. That pre-emption is becoming more likely as their technology matures. Every missile test, every underground test of a nuclear weapon, means the marriage is more likely.”
Graham’s comments echoed White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster, who said a day earlier that the odds of conflict with Pyongyang are “increasing every day.”
The United States has 28,500 troops in South Korea as a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in an armistice and not a formal peace treaty, leaving the warring parties still technically at war.
Any move by Washington to evacuate dependents or other American nationals from the Korean Peninsula would heighten fears of military action against the North. It would also be a visible signal to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who could interpret the move as a precursor to a strike on his regime.
In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Monday that while the North Korean missile threat has been escalating, Japan was not considering issuing warnings for Japanese nationals in South Korea.
“At this point, we don’t believe there are any safety concerns for Japanese in South Korea that would necessitate the government to issue evacuation warnings or restrictions on travel to and from the country,” Suga said.
Bluster or not, the remarks by Graham and McMaster, coupled with the ongoing shows of military force on the North’s doorstep, have certainly captured Pyongyang’s attention.
North Korean state media blasted this week’s aerial exercise, known as Vigilant Ace, calling it a “war rehearsal” and “a grave military provocation which will push the already acute situation on the Korean Peninsula to the brink of nuclear war.”
In a separate commentary in state-run media, the North said it would again consider the “highest-level hard-line countermeasure in history.” The isolated country made a similar statement in September, which North Korean diplomats have hinted may be an atmospheric test of a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific Ocean.
Euan Graham, director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney and a former British diplomat in Pyongyang, said it appears that the Trump administration and its supporters on Capitol Hill are “trying to maximize pressure on Pyongyang with this kind of talk.”
“The fact that allies are still taking the possibility of U.S. preventive attack seriously shows that the war talk — bluff or otherwise — is having some effect,” he said.
But, Graham added, the North’s latest announcement that it had effectively completed its nuclear drive with the proven advances in its ICBM program, including Wednesday’s successful test, “suggest the gate may already have shut on prevention.”
The annual Vigilant Ace exercise, which will run through Friday, will see the United States put some of its most advanced military hardware on display. Six F-22 and 18 F-35 stealth fighters will take part in the exercise, including six U.S. Marine F-35Bs based at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Yamaguchi Prefecture. Media reports have also said B-1B strategic bombers will also take part in the drills.
South Korea’s Defense Ministry said the two countries will stage simulated precision airstrikes on mock North Korean nuclear and missile targets, including transporter erector launchers similar to the ones Pyongyang employs to keep its missiles mobile.
Seoul’s Unification Ministry, however, tried to tamp down assertions by Pyongyang that the allies are pushing the peninsula “to the brink of war.”
“The air force drill is an annual joint military exercise of a defensive nature between allies,” the South’s Yonhap news agency quoted a ministry spokesman as saying.
Some experts on the region are dubious of the claim.
“Given the aircraft involved, the exercise looks more like an attack drill than defensive operations, integration training, or assurance,” said Adam Mount, a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists. “Increasingly frequent and more threatening drills are part of a deliberate attempt to raise the risk of war.”
Staff writer Tomohiro Osaki contributed to this report.