- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 13, 2017

The White House significantly scaled back its rhetoric against North Korea on Sunday, with both the national security adviser and the nation’s top spy saying the U.S. is no closer to war with the communist nation, despite the president’s vow to unleash “fire and fury” against the North should it lash out militarily against America and its Pacific allies.

North Korea’s recent provocations tied to the country’s nuclear ambitions, which have drawn the ire of Washington and the international community, have escalated the ongoing war of words between Pyongyang and Washington.

But the country’s formidable conventional military, which is the fourth-largest armed force in the world, poses a much more serious threat to U.S. allies in the region, Defense Department analysts say.

Some estimates put Pyongyang’s total military force of nearly 1 million active-duty and reserve troops, backed by an aging but still effective fleet of fighters, bombers, warships, tanks and submarines.

The North “fields a large, conventional, forward-deployed military that retains the capability to inflict serious damage” on the peninsula, says a 2015 Pentagon review of the country’s combat capabilities.

“Although North Korea is unlikely to attack on a scale that would risk regime survival by inviting overwhelming U.S.-ROK counterattacks, North Korea’s threshold for smaller, asymmetric attacks” remains the predominant conventional threat, the Pentagon assessment notes.

However, North Korea’s burgeoning nuclear capabilities remain at the forefront of U.S. defense and national security officials as the Trump administration’s tact toward Pyongyang continues to vacillate between Mr. Trump’s hard-line rhetoric and that of the U.S. defense and intelligence communities.

Last week, while on a working vacation in Bedminster, New Jersey, Mr. Trump’s refusals to rule out pre-emptive military action against the North if it carries out a threat against U.S. forces in Guam caused global leaders to call for both sides to ease tensions.

But on Sunday, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and CIA Director Mike Pompeo swung the White House rhetoric back toward a more pragmatic stance on the North’s saber rattling.

Appearing Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” Mr. McMaster acknowledged that North Korea’s dangers and threat to the world are “very, very clear.” But despite that overall threat posed by Pyongyang, “I think we’re not closer to war than a week ago,” he said. “But we are closer to war than we were a decade ago.”

The Korean People’s Army

Of North Korea’s population of 25 million, 4 percent to 5 percent make up the country’s active-duty army, navy and air forces, which are backed up by the country’s reserve and paramilitary units consisting of 25 percent to 30 percent of the population, the Pentagon assessment concluded.

Aside from its efforts to develop a nuclear capability, Pyongyang has funneled billions of dollars into revamping its Cold War-era military.

Focusing on development of mobile missile systems Hwasong and No Dong-class of short and medium range missiles and long-range artillery weapons, The North’s “force modernization will likely emphasize defensive and asymmetric attack capabilities to counter technologically superior” systems fielded by the U.S. and its allies.

With a range of nearly 500 miles, the Hwasong-7 short-range ballistic missile in use by Korean forces can reliably strike targets as far as southwest Japan, while the No Dong-class medium-range ballistic missile has all of Japan and surrounding island chains well within its 930-mile range.

Part of that heavy investment in nonconventional combat capabilities favored by the North Korean regime are most apparent in Pyongyang’s focus on developing its own cadre of special forces.

North Korean special operations forces “are among the most highly trained, well-equipped, best-fed and highly motivated forces in the [Korean People’s Army],” says the Pentagon.

“As North Korea’s conventional capabilities decline relative to [South Korea] and United States, North Korea appears to increasingly regard [special operations forces] capabilities as vital for asymmetric coercion,” U.S. officials say.

North Korean special operations units, “including airborne, reconnaissance … commandos” and Pyongyang’s own version of the vaunted Navy SEALs “all emphasize speed of movement and surprise attack to accomplish their missions,” they add.

This focus on defensive measures and special operations capabilities by Pyongyang is partly because of the country’s inability to keep its military apace with modern advancements seen in more modern forces, Pentagon analysts say.

Most of the 4,200 tanks, 800 fighters, 750 warships and 14,000 rocket and heavy artillery weapons in Pyongyang’s arsenal are Russian and Chinese-built weapons dating back to the early 1970s, department officials assess.

North Korea “has not acquired new fighter aircraft in decades, relies on older air defense systems, lacks ballistic missile defense, its Navy does not train for blue water operations,” according to the Defense Department.

Its more modern mobile missile systems still rely on tractor-towed launchers, “while most other countries are improving the mobility of such systems.”

‘Nothing imminent’

In recent weeks, Pyongyang has accelerated efforts to develop a miniature nuclear bomb and the missiles to deliver it as far as the U.S. mainland — despite stringent opposition and sanctions from the international community.

Last month, North Korean military successfully launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile. The results of those unprecedented launches show the North has the preliminary capability to hit targets as far as the West Coast of the U.S., though Pyongyang made its most specific threat against the Pacific island of Guam, a U.S. territory.

On Thursday, Defense Secretary James Mattis said the Pentagon has developed military options if North Korea attempts to launch attacks against U.S. territories in Guam or elsewhere in the Pacific. He told reporters that department leaders had a “military solution” for Pyongyang in place.

But on Sunday, Mr. Pompeo downplayed any immediate risk to the U.S.

“There’s nothing imminent,” he said during an appearance on “Fox News Sunday” “There’s no intelligence indicating we’re on the cusp of a nuclear war.”

That said, he did warn Pyongyang that Washington had lost its “strategic patience” and echoed worries that North Korea’s nuclear capabilities are progressing rapidly.

“Each time they test another missile, or if they should conduct a nuclear weapons test, they develop expertise, they expand the envelope,” he said.

When asked whether North Korea has nuclear weapons capable of hitting the U.S., he replied that “it is probably fair to say they are moving toward that at an ever-alarming rate.”

“We are hopeful that the leader of the country will understand [Mr. Trump’s remarks] in precisely the way they were intended, to permit him to get to a place where we can get the nuclear weapons off the peninsula,” Mr. Pompeo said. “That’s the best message you can deliver to someone who is putting America at risk.”

Mr. McMaster lauded the new round of economic sanctions handed down against the North by members of the United Nations Security Council, targeting North Korea’s major exports such as coal, iron and seafood, in response to the July tests.

But he also noted that the sanctions needed time to take effect.

Reining in North Korea “demands a concerted effort by the United States, but with our allies and with all responsible nations,” he said. “And this is what you’ve seen the president do is bring together all nations.”

Mr. Pompeo also praised diplomatic efforts by Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley for persuading China and Russia to join in a unanimous U.N. vote approving the sanctions.

Former Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta argued that North Korea understood the stakes in the standoff and that Kim Jong-un’s command over the country could be at stake.

“I think the North Koreans understand that if they take the wrong step, it’s the end of the regime, period,” Mr. Panetta said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

 Ben Wolfgang contributed to this report.

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