US President Donald Trump said his military could be headed for a “major” confrontation with North Korea Thursday, as tensions continued to ramp up in a standoff over the Asian country’s nuclear missiles.
“There is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea. Absolutely,” Trump told Reuters.
The Trump administration has declared that all options, including a targeted military strike, are on the table to block North Korea from carrying out threats against the United States and its allies in the region. But a pre-emptive attack isn’t likely, US officials have said, and the administration is pursuing a strategy of putting pressure on Pyongyang with assistance from China, North Korea’s main trading partner and the country’s economic lifeline.
Trump told Reuters he’d like to see the conflict solved through diplomatic means “but it’s very difficult.”
Earlier Thursday, a senior US Navy officer overseeing military operations in the Pacific said the crisis with North Korea is at the worst point he’s ever seen.
“It’s real,” Adm. Harry Harris Jr., commander of US Pacific Command, said during testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Harris said he has no doubt that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un intends to fulfill his pursuit of a nuclear-tipped missile capable of striking the United States. The admiral acknowledged there’s uncertainty within US intelligence agencies over how far along North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs are. But Harris said it’s not a matter of if but when.
“There is no doubt in my mind,” Harris said.
In a show of military might, the US has sent a massive amount of American weaponry to east Asia. A group of American warships led by the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson is in striking range of North Korea “if the president were to call on it,” Harris told the committee. A US missile defense system called Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense is being installed in South Korea.
Harris said he has adequate forces to “fight tonight” against North Korea if that were to become necessary. But the admiral also said he lacks all the attack submarines he needs and has no capable defense against the thousands of artillery pieces North Korea has assembled near the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea. There are about 28,500 US military personnel serving in South Korea.
“We do not have those kinds of weapons that can counter those rockets once they’re launched,” Harris said in response to a question from the committee’s Republican chairman, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
Trump said he hoped North Korean leader Kim was rational, noting that he had managed to take over the regime at 27 years old when his father died.
“I’m not giving him credit or not giving him credit, I’m just saying that’s a very hard thing to do. As to whether or not he’s rational, I have no opinion on it. I hope he’s rational,” he said
He also lavished praise on Chinese President Xi Jinping for his efforts to thwart Pyongyang.
The interview came as US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that China had threatened to impose sanctions on North Korea if it conducts further nuclear tests.
“We know that China is in communications with the regime in Pyongyang,” Tillerson said on Fox News Channel. “They confirmed to us that they had requested the regime conduct no further nuclear test.”
Tillerson said China also told the US that it had informed North Korea “that if they did conduct further nuclear tests, China would be taking sanctions actions on their own.”
With international support, the Trump administration said Thursday it wants to exert a “burst” of economic and diplomatic pressure on North Korea that yields results within months to push the communist government to change course from developing nuclear weapons.
Susan Thornton, the acting top US diplomat for East Asia, said there’s debate about whether Pyongyang is willing to give up its weapons programs. She said the US wants “to test that hypothesis to the maximum extent we can” for a peaceful resolution.
But signaling that military action remains possible, Thornton told an event hosted by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies — the Washington think tank that has advocated tougher US policies on Iran and North Korea — that the administration treats North Korea as its primary security challenge and is serious that “all options are on the table.”
“We are not seeking regime change and our preference is to resolve this problem peacefully,” Thornton said, “but we are not leaving anything off the table.”
Tillerson took a similar stand in the Fox News interview Thursday, saying: “We do not seek regime change in North Korea. … What we are seeking is the same thing China has said they seek — a full denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”
In a separate interview with National Public Radio, Tillerson said the US remains open to holding direct negotiations with North Korea.
“But North Korea has to decide they’re ready to talk to us about the about the right agenda, and the right agenda is not simply stopping where they are for a few more months or a few more years and then resuming things,” he said, according to excerpts of an interview that will air Friday morning. “That’s been the agenda for the last 20 years.”
Multi-nation negotiations with North Korea on its nuclear program stalled in 2008. The Obama administration attempted to resurrect them in 2012, but a deal to provide food aid in exchange for a nuclear freeze soon collapsed.
After weeks of unusually blunt military threats, President Donald Trump’s national security team briefed lawmakers Wednesday on North Korea’s advancing nuclear capabilities. A joint statement from agency heads made no specific mention of military options, though it said the US would defend itself and friends.
Harris told the committee that the financial sanctions imposed against the North Korean regime by the US and other countries have done nothing to slow North Korea’s quest for weapons of mass destruction. He also said he’s been skeptical of China’s willingness to exert its influence over Pyongyang. But Harris said he’s become “cautiously optimistic” following recent talks between Trump and Xi.
“It’s only been a month or so and it’s too early to tell,” Harris said. “I wouldn’t bet my farm on it.”