The top U.S. commander in the Pacific region told Congress that America and its Asian-Pacific allies are trying to navigate their way through the increasingly aggressive threats issued by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and the more limited reach of his military forces.
Speaking hours before the entire U.S. Senate took a bus trip for a rare White House classified briefing on the rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula, U.S. Pacific Command chief Adm. Harry Harris told the House Armed Services Committee the North’s nuclear programs remain a worry, but that the U.S. and its allies have the resources to resist Pyongyang’s conventional military attacks.
“I believe that we have to look at North Korea as if Kim Jong-un will do what he says,” Adm. Harris said. “But … right now there is probably a mismatch between [his] rhetoric and his [combat] capability.”
Specifically, the admiral dismissed the North’s recent boasts that it could sink the Carl Vinson air carrier battle group that President Trump had dispatched to the waters off North Korea in recent days following military exercises, a ballistic missile test and apparent preparations for another nuclear test by North Korea.
“If it flies, it will die if it’s flying against the Carl Vinson strike group,” the admiral told the House panel.
But Adm. Harris also acknowledged to Washington state Rep. Adam Smith, the panel’s ranking Democrat, that he was not confident “that North Korea is not going to attack either South Korea or Japan or the United States or our territories or our states — or parts of the United States — once they have the capability.”
While the North’s weapons testing programs have met with multiple problems, the admiral added, Kim Jong-un “is not afraid to fail in public — and he fails a lot — but I think Edison failed 1,000 times before he got the light bulb to work. So here we are.”
The White House said the Executive Office Building briefing, which the president attended at the start but was conducted by Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson and Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, outlined plans to ramp up economic and diplomatic pressure on North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons program and press China to rein in its ally. But the briefing also seemed designed to tamp down talk of imminent military action.
A White House official speaking on background said the Trump administration is working to “isolate” North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs “from any sort of external support,” and noted that the massive military parade in Pyongyang this month contained military hardware not made locally. “Those components, even the tires aren’t made in North Korea. It’s clear that all of us have a lot more to do to isolate the regime and its access to the kinds of materials and technology and components it needs to advance those two very dangerous programs,” the official said.
Other options that have been floated include redesignating North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism (it was taken off the list at the end of the George W. Bush administration) and pressuring other countries to shut down North Korean embassies and other consulates around the world, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Wednesday.
After stepping off the bus from the White House, Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and a leading Senate hawk, said the threat from North Korea warranted such an unusual gathering, but added, “I didn’t hear anything new because I have already been heavily briefed before.”
Sen. Christopher A. Coons, Delaware Democrat, said the presentation was serious and detailed, but said a “preemptive strike” against Pyongyang was not discussed in the classified meeting.
The war or words is likely to increase later this week. On Friday at the United Nations, Mr. Tillerson is scheduled to chair a special meeting of the U.N. Security Council on North Korea, according to a spokesman.
On Wednesday, a battery of long-range, anti-ballistic U.S. missiles, dubbed the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), arrived in South Korea.
Beijing has repeatedly denounced the planned THAAD deployment, claiming the weapon could undermine China’s ballistic missile defense efforts or spy on China’s defense capabilities. But officials in Washington have repeatedly stressed the missile defense system is defensive in nature and integral to curbing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
⦁ Dave Boyer contributed to this report, which was based in part on wire service reports.