Is a war pitting the U.S. and its allies against nuclear-armed North Korea on the horizon?
While most analysts, regional security experts and government officials say the odds of conflict erupting on the Korean Peninsula remain low, observers say there has in recent months been a noticeable but discreet uptick in not only heated rhetoric, but also in military preparations by the United States as well as moves by Japan to limit the fallout from any potential conflict.
As Seoul and Pyongyang continue to lay the groundwork for rare intra-Korean cooperation in next month’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, the U.S. has quietly been deploying an assortment of powerful weapons — what it calls “strategic assets” — to the region. The military has sent nuclear-capable bombers, including three stealth B-2s and six of its workhorse B-52s, to the U.S. territory of Guam, a key logistics hub and outpost some 3,400 km from North Korea. Those planes join six B-1B bombers, which like the others would likely play a critical role in any strikes originating from Guam on nuclear, missile and leadership sites in the North.
The U.S. has also sent to the region at least one extra aircraft carrier, the USS Carl Vinson, while the USS Wasp, an amphibious assault ship dubbed a “mini-aircraft carrier” because of upgrades that allow it to host next-generation F-35B stealth fighters, arrived Sunday at the Sasebo Naval Base in Nagasaki Prefecture.
The Wasp’s arrival compliments the potent U.S. assets already deployed in Japan, including the Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture-based USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier. Meanwhile, rumors have swirled that the U.S. could send a third carrier to the region, the USS John Stennis, home-ported in Washington state, in a manner similar to the navy’s massive, three-carrier show of force off the Korean Peninsula last November.
On Tuesday, the navy announced that the Stennis had departed for training at sea as its crew prepares for its next scheduled deployment.
Washington has also reportedly ramped-up training to practice moving troops and equipment under live artillery fire to assault targets and has plans to send more special operations troops to the Korean Peninsula, according to a report this week by The New York Times citing two dozen current and former Pentagon officials and senior commanders.
The enhanced training has largely been in response to orders from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and armed service heads “to be ready for any possible military action on the Korean Peninsula,” the report said.
Indeed, the U.S., Mattis reportedly told an international meeting of top officials from 20 nations focusing on North Korea, has already prepared a war plan for the North in the event diplomatic efforts fail, Kyodo News reported Wednesday, quoting a source from one of the countries.
In remarks corroborated by The Japan Times, a top Republican U.S. lawmaker confirmed Tuesday that the military was indeed conducting “very serious” training for a possible conflict with the North, though he stressed his hopes that such preparations would never be put to use.
Rep. Mac Thornberry, who chairs the powerful House Armed Services Committee, which provides civilian oversight to the Pentagon, said the White House was closely studying its options.
“The administration is very seriously looking at what would be involved with military options when it comes to North Korea,” Thornberry was quoted as saying.
Training efforts “are very serious,” he added.
“The military has preparations underway, and hopefully they will not be needed.”
And while Mattis himself has said war with North Korea would be “catastrophic,” couching his pronouncements that “all options remain on the table” by calling for diplomacy first and foremost, the nature of his post requires that he prepare the military for whatever contingencies may arise.
Still, Steven Weber, an expert on U.S.-North Korea relations and professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley, said that while the cadence of planning may have increased, he did not see the moves as part of any “elaborate master plan.”
“I think the U.S. government believes that ratcheting up diplomacy and ratcheting up the ‘threat’ of military action at the same time are complementary ingredients of a single message, which is that we are going to deal with this problem one way or the other and not wait indefinitely,” Weber said.
Mark Fitzpatrick, a veteran arms control expert with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, echoed that sentiment, but warned that a failure in the North-South peace push and a return to testing of long-range missiles by Pyongyang would create an environment ripe for conflict.
While the moves “are consistent with normal training and troop rotations and thus should not necessarily be seen as preparation for a war with North Korea,” the “beefed-up military posture in the region is prudent planning in the event that war does occur,” he said.
“The deployments also contribute to the blunt messaging that the Trump administration has been engaged in, warning North Korea of the armed might that the U.S. can bring to bear if patience wears out,” Fitzpatrick said of President Donald Trump’s team.
“If, or more likely when, the Olympics peace lull breaks down and North Korea resumes testing intercontinental ballistic missiles this spring, then chances for a military conflict will rise, perhaps to as great as 50 percent,” he said. “Even if Trump’s bluster is all bluff, North Korea can easily misjudge U.S. actions.
“There is a real possibility of an unintended war breaking (out) over in the Korean Peninsula.”
Beyond the movement of advanced hardware and bolstered preparations for a war many in the military hope will never come, there have also been subtle signs emanating from the White House of a shift toward war-footing.
While the fiery bluster of Trump has captured most of the attention — including threats to “totally destroy” North Korea and insults directed at the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un — the words of his trusted deputies have also revealed much about the administration’s thinking on military action.
On Tuesday, during a gathering in Canada of U.S. allies on how to beef up sanctions pressure on the North, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued some of his strongest words yet for Pyongyang, saying that time was running out for the isolated regime.
“We all need to be very sober and clear-eyed about the current situation,” Tillerson said when asked whether Americans should be concerned about the possibility of a war. “We have to recognize that the threat is growing and that if North Korea does not choose the pathway of engagement, discussion, negotiation then they themselves will trigger an option.”
‘Bloody nose’ option
But perhaps most tellingly of the shifting tone was Tillerson’s answer to a reporter’s question about reported talk in the White House of a limited military strike, what some have called the “bloody nose” option.
Although Tillerson, who has advocated for a diplomatic solution to the crisis, refrained from directly answering the question, the top U.S. diplomat effectively admitted the Trump administration has been considering such a move at the highest levels when he said he would not speak “on issues that have yet to be decided among the National Security Council or the president.”
Contacted by The Japan Times for comment on Tillerson’s remarks, the State Department was sanguine.
“I would advise against attempting to extract any ‘effective confirmation’ beyond the points clearly stated by Secretary Tillerson,” State Department spokeswoman Nicole Thompson said in an email. “We will not parse his words.”
Van Jackson, a North Korea expert at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, said Tillerson’s remarks confirmed his belief that the White House has already been “on a war footing.”
“President Trump and some on his team have been actively shutting down off-ramps from the current nuclear crisis,” said Jackson, a former policy adviser in the U.S. office of the secretary of defense. “That Tillerson is now saying these same things is disturbing because it suggests he’s been told behind closed doors to get in line.”
Jackson said his concerns, “which Tillerson substantiates,” is that Washington’s policy of heaping “maximum pressure” on Pyongyang is merely “a box-checking exercise aimed at trying to rally international backing behind the U.S. as much as possible before launching into a war, whether by ‘bloody nose’ or an Iraq-style invasion.”
He said the international community sees backing the maximum pressure campaign, of which Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been one of the strongest proponents, “as a way of keeping the U.S. from taking rash action.”
“But it’s looking like the Trump administration is viewing it the opposite way — getting the international community to back maximum pressure so that they’ll be locked in to the next logical step — conflict — when it fails,” Jackson added.
Japan’s contingency planning
This position by the international community, including top ally Japan, has apparently left Tokyo scrambling to react.
According to Michael Bosack, a regional security expert and former deputy chief of government relations for U.S. Forces Japan, views within Tokyo are not unanimous on whether a limited strike would be beneficial at the moment.
“While few political leaders will advertise hawkish opinions to the public or press, there are entities who would rather deal with this situation now — even if that means militarily — than wait until North Korea is able to advance its capabilities even further,” Bosack said. “Of course, this is counterbalanced by those who are adamantly opposed to potential entrapment in a U.S.-led conflict with North Korea.”
Media reports of Japanese contingency planning, including a plan leaked to the daily Yomiuri Shimbun to evacuate Japanese nationals in South Korea, have emerged as the government grapples with the prospect of war with its nuclear-armed neighbor.
Tetsuo Kotani, a senior fellow with the Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo, said that while preparing for possible conflict “is the obligation of any responsible government,” he believes that Washington is not considering a “preventive strike” on North Korea, meaning an attack to deprive it of a capability rather than to stop an actual, imminent launch.
“What they are preparing are self-defense measures, including pre-emption vis-a-vis any imminent threat targeting the territories of the U.S. or its allies and, if such a threat comes, denial and retaliation,” Kotani said.
“Abe supports Trump’s all-options-on-the-table approach and I understand Tokyo is telling Washington about the importance of legal ground for any use of force and that otherwise it would be difficult for Tokyo to endorse and support the U.S.,” he added.
“I don’t think Washington would implement any military option without consulting Japan because U.S. military actions require Japan’s support.”
Testing red lines
For the two allies, Kotani said the biggest challenge is North Korea’s increasing willingness to test U.S. red lines.
“Some in Washington think the U.S. should take self-defensive measures,” Kotani said, offering up an example of a North Korean missile landing near, but not inside, U.S. territorial waters.
“They argue if a missile hit just outside the territorial waters … self-defense would be justified,” he said, noting that such a challenge could arise if North Korea targets the area around Guam, which it has threatened to shower with ballistic missile “enveloping fire.”
“As North Korea tests U.S. red lines, there may be a time when” it crosses one, Kotani said.
So is a military option really a possibility?
Bosack believes that regardless of whether the administration is actually committed to carrying out an attack, “in order for the threat of a U.S. military strike to influence North Korean decision-making, it has to be credible.”
“That is why the administration will not disavow its willingness to pursue a limited strike option under any circumstance,” Bosack said.
For his part, Trump has recently softened his language somewhat, saying that he hopes the standoff with Pyongyang can be resolved “in a peaceful way,” though he has hedged his bets by noting that “it’s very possible that it can’t.”
In an interview with Reuters published Wednesday, Trump would not say whether the White House has been considering a limited strike to show the North that the U.S. means business.
“We’re playing a very, very hard game of poker and you don’t want to reveal your hand,” he said.