Senior national security leaders in the Trump administration are systematically walking back the president’s hard-line rhetoric toward provocations by North Korea, advocating over the past several days an approach that is less fire and fury and more of a pragmatic approach to Pyongyang’s saber-rattling.
Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Monday joined the heads of the administration’s military, intelligence and diplomatic corps in calling for a restrained approach to North Korea, tempering the threat of military action while leaving open avenues for a peaceful resolution.
“The military dimension today is directly in support of that diplomatic and economic effort,” Gen. Dunford, the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit the Asia-Pacific region since the crisis escalated last week, told reporters in Seoul. “It would be a horrible thing were a war to be conducted here on the peninsula, and that’s why we’re so focused on coming up with a peaceful way ahead.”
But there were signs that the momentum of the crisis had not entirely stopped.
North Korea’s state news service said Tuesday that the nation’s supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, had been personally briefed on a war plan for a missile test in the waters near the U.S. territory of Guam while Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon that if the North took the first shot at U.S. territory, it would be “game on” for the U.S. military to respond.
Mr. Kim said he will give order for the missile test if the United States continues its “extremely dangerous actions” on the Korean Peninsula.
However, according to the Korean Central News Agency, Mr. Kim also offered an olive branch, suggesting that the U.S. could defuse the situation with concrete gestures.
“In order to defuse the tensions and prevent the dangerous military conflict on the Korean peninsula, it is necessary for the U.S. to make a proper option first and show it through action, as it committed provocations after introducing huge nuclear strategic equipment into the vicinity of the peninsula,” KCNA cited Mr. Kim as saying.
And in a nationally televised speech Tuesday, South Korean President Moon Jae-in also tried to defuse matters and said the U.S. could not launch a war against the North without the South’s approval.
However, Mr. Moon put the onus on North Korea, saying Pyongyang could freeze its nuclear and missile tests to create the conditions for dialogue.
Guam, roughly 2,000 miles from North Korea, is a major Pacific military hub for the U.S. Navy and Air Force.
Gen. Dunford is in South Korea as part of a diplomatic visit to the peninsula and China in an attempt to ease tensions caused by North Korea’s continued provocations. President Trump’s startling threats to rain “fire and fury” on Pyongyang should it threaten American interests in the region have only fueled the sense of crisis in recent weeks.
But for all the belligerent talk, there are few signs that the U.S. and its allies are preparing for a shooting war. No major mobilization is underway, and there are no plans to evacuate American citizens living in vulnerable South Korea.
“Nobody’s looking for war,” Gen. Dunford said Monday, echoing the comments of White House National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and CIA chief Mike Pompeo, who took to the Sunday talk shows in an effort to temper the message from Mr. Trump.
“There’s nothing imminent,” Mr. Pompeo said during an appearance on “Fox News Sunday.” “There’s no intelligence indicating we’re on the cusp of a nuclear war.”
Mr. Mattis and Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson on Monday wrote in a joint op-ed for The Wall Street Journal that the U.S. was pursuing a “peaceful pressure campaign” against Pyongyang and said the Trump White House has “no interest in regime change or accelerated reunification of Korea.”
But the more moderate talk comes amid reported infighting among various factions inside the administration over whether the North Korea problem can be resolved through negotiations or whether military action may be necessary.
Mr. Mattis said Monday that the decision was made weeks ago to pen the joint op-ed with his counterpart at the State Department and was not in response to any recent comments by White House staff on the diplomatic mission over North Korea. The op-ed, the Pentagon chief told reporters, was designed to convey the notion that Pentagon- and State Department-led efforts to bring North Korea to heel were complementary and not a case of both agencies being pitted against each other.
It was published days after Sebastian Gorka, a senior White House national security aide, publicly questioned Mr. Tillerson’s role in North Korea policy. He said it was nonsensical for America’s top diplomat to be involved in any discussion on military options for North Korea.
Mr. McMaster on Sunday 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 a pair of unprecedented long-range ballistic missile tests last month.
But he noted that the sanctions needed time to take hold. Reining in North Korea “demands a concerted effort by the United States, but with our allies and with all responsible nations,” Mr. McMaster said.
But Mr. Trump’s national security team also was blunt about the dangers North Korea still posed to the region, particularly in the wake of two long-range missile tests and intelligence analysis suggesting that Pyongyang had developed a miniaturized nuclear device.
Gen. Dunford and Gen. Vincent Brooks, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, vowed Monday to press ahead with annual joint military drills with South Korea despite claims by the North that such exercises are a dress rehearsal for overthrowing Mr. Kim’s regime.
“The exercises remain important to us, and we’ll continue to move forward,” Gen. Brooks said during a press conference at command headquarters alongside the Pentagon’s top officer.
The annual joint exercise is slated to begin on Aug. 21 and will involve a number of the 28,000 U.S. troops based in the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea, as well as their counterparts in the South Korean military.
Last week, Mr. Mattis said the Pentagon had developed military options should North Korea attempt to launch attacks against U.S. territories in the Pacific. He told reporters that Pentagon leaders had a military solution for Pyongyang in place.
Protesters gathered at the port city of Hagatna in Guam Monday to call for a peaceful resolution to the crisis.
“If anything should happen here, that’s going to be a global war. It’s a call to respect the people,” protester Monaeka Flores told The Associated Press. Melvin Won Pat-Borja, who also attended Monday’s protest, feared that the breakout of nuclear war in the Pacific is “a very real possibility” and “it’s not a good feeling to have your life threatened.”
Mr. Mattis on Monday reiterated that the U.S. missile defense shield in the region would be able to detect any missile launch against Guam and almost instantaneously calculate whether those shots would strike land. When asked what the fallout would be from a North Korean missile shot targeting Guam or its surrounding waters, Mr. Mattis replied: “You do not shoot at people and not be prepared to bear the consequences.”
“We will defend the country from any attack, at any time, from any quarter,” the former four-star general said, adding that American service members tasked with defending the country could find themselves in a wartime situation if that scenario unfolds.
Many say the solution to the crisis may rest with China, North Korea’s biggest trading partner. In response to the U.N. sanctions, Beijing announced on Monday plans to cut off North Korean coal, iron ore and other goods in three weeks — a potentially painful blow to the isolated North Korean economy.
In February, in compliance with an earlier U.N. resolution, China announced a ban on North Korean coal imports for the rest of the year. However, total trade appears to have risen and prompted the Trump administration to accuse Beijing of failing to use its economic leverage to stop Mr. Kim’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.
The Chinese customs agency said Monday that it would add iron, lead ores and fish to the coal ban as of midnight on Sept. 5. “After that, entry of these goods will be prohibited,” the agency said in a statement.
China has been hesitant to push too hard against the Kim regime despite efforts by the Trump administration because Beijing fears a massive refugee crisis and a possibly unified Korea allied to the U.S.
Chinese President Xi Jinping called Mr. Trump on Saturday and urged him to avoid “words and deeds” that could worsen tensions on the peninsula.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.