US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis hinted on Monday about the existence of military options on North Korea that might spare South Korea’s capital Seoul from a brutal counterattack but he declined to elaborate.
His comments follow those of US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said on Sunday, when she said the UN Security Council had run out of options on containing North Korea’s nuclear program and that the US might have to turn the matter over to the Pentagon.
Seoul is within artillery range of North Korea, which beyond nuclear and conventional weapons is also believed to have a sizable chemical and biological arsenal.
Asked whether there were any military options the United States could take with North Korea that would not put Seoul at grave risk, Mattis said: “Yes there are. But I will not go into details.”
The 1950-53 Korean War was one of the deadliest in modern history, killing millions of Koreans, most of them civilians, and tens of thousands of US and Chinese troops, as well as soldiers from other countries who fought under the UN banner. The conflict, often referred to as The Forgotten War, ended in an armed truce, not a peace treaty.
Military options available to US President Donald Trump range from non-lethal actions like a naval blockade aimed at enforcing sanctions to waging cyber attacks and positioning new US weaponry in South Korea, where the United States has 28,500 troops.
South Korea has raised the possibility of reintroducing nuclear weapons to the peninsula. Mattis acknowledged discussing that with his South Korean counterpart but declined to say whether that option was under consideration.
“We have open dialogue with our allies on any issue that they want to bring up,” he said.
Trump has hinted that any use of lethal force against North Korea would be overwhelming, using phrases like “fire and fury” that evoke images of nuclear war.
The US military said on Monday it had staged bombing drills with South Korea, flying a pair of B-1B bombers and F-35 fighter jets over the Korean peninsula in a show of force against North Korea.
Still, despite heated rhetoric and posturing in the United States and North Korea, there has been no positioning of US military weaponry to suggest a military conflict is imminent.
Trump has vowed that North Korea will never be allowed to threaten the United States with a nuclear-tipped missile, but he has also asked China, North Korea’s main ally and trading partner, to do more to rein in its neighbor. China in turn favors an international response to the problem.
The US president on Monday said he had a “very good” phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping that covered trade and North Korea.
“It was a long call, it was a very good call,” Trump said during remarks at a dinner for Latin American leaders on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.
Trump will make his first address to the United Nations on Tuesday and is expected to speak forcefully about the North Korean threat.
“He will speak in extremely tough terms about the North Korean menace and the threat it poses to our security and the security of all the nations in that room,” a White House official told reporters in a call previewing Trump’s remarks.
“And he will talk about, as well, the enablement of the North Korean regime and what that means too,” the official said.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, did not elaborate, but his mention of “enablement” was likely a reference to China.
Separately, Mattis told reporters that he believed diplomacy and sanctions were so far succeeding in putting more pressure on Pyongyang.
“So, yes, it’s working,” he said.
Even as tensions rise, the United States and its allies have stuck to a hands-off policy when North Korea test-fires its missiles.
Mattis confirmed that policy on Monday, saying it would not shoot down a North Korean missile unless it poses a direct threat to the United States or its allies.
He said Pyongyang’s calculus appeared to be designed to race forward with its missile program, “without going over some kind of a line in their minds that would make them vulnerable.”