SEOUL – The top U.S. military officer said Monday that the United States wants to peacefully resolve a deepening standoff with North Korea but is also ready to use the “full range” of its military capabilities in case of provocation.
The comments by Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford in a series of meetings with senior South Korean military and political officials and the local media appeared to be an attempt to ease anxiety over tit-for-tat threats between President Donald Trump and North Korea while also showing a willingness to back up Trump’s warnings if need be.
Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is visiting South Korea, Japan and China after a week in which Trump declared the U.S. military “locked and loaded” and said he was ready to unleash “fire and fury” if North Korea continued to threaten the United States.
North Korea, meanwhile, has threatened to lob four intermediate-range missiles into the waters near Guam, a tiny U.S. territory about 3,200 kilometers (2,000 miles) from Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital. This would be a deeply provocative act from the U.S. perspective, and there has been widespread debate about whether Washington would try to shoot the missiles down if they’re fired.
The U.S.-North Korea impasse, which has simmered since the end of the Korean War in 1953, has grown more tense in recent months over worries that the North’s nuclear weapons program is nearing the ability to target the U.S. mainland. Pyongyang tested two intercontinental ballistic missiles last month.
“We are seeking a peaceful resolution to the crisis,” Dunford, who also met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, said to reporters, according to a local pool report.
He earlier told his South Korean counterparts that America is ready “to use the full range of military capabilities to defend our allies and the U.S. homeland,” according to U.S. military spokesman Capt. Darryn James.
Moon separately called Monday for a peaceful solution to the nuclear standoff, saying that “there must not be another war on the Korean Peninsula,” according to his office.
In a meeting with top aides at the presidential Blue House, Moon said South Korea would work to safeguard peace on the peninsula in cooperation with the United States and other countries. Moon said North Korea must stop issuing menacing statements and provoking.
North Korea, which is angry over new United Nations sanctions condemning its rapidly developing nuclear and missile program, continued its tough stance on Monday.
The North accused the United States of mobilizing a huge number of weapons and troops for annual military drills with South Korea that begin later this month. Pyongyang, which claims the drills are war preparation, says it will be ready to send its Guam missile launch plan to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for approval just before or as the drills begin.
“What matters is that if a second conflict (on the peninsula) erupts, that cannot help but lead to a nuclear war,” the North’s official Korean Central News Agency said in a commentary. “We are closely monitoring every move by the United States.”
The commentary said that about 3.5 million young students and workers have volunteered to join or rejoin the army because of a possible confrontation with the United States.
Dunford earlier told reporters traveling with him to Asia that he aims to “sense what the temperature is in the region.” He also will discuss military options in the event the “diplomatic and economic pressurization campaign” fails.
“We’re all looking to get out of this situation without a war,” Dunford said.
Chinese President Xi Jinping talked on the phone Saturday with Trump and called for cool-headedness. Xi urged Washington and Pyongyang to avoid words or actions that could worsen the situation.
Trump has pushed China, North Korea’s biggest economic partner and source of aid, to do more to stop the North’s nuclear ambitions. Beijing says its influence on Pyongyang is limited.
Trump’s recent threats followed a report that U.S. intelligence indicates North Korea can now put a nuclear warhead on its long-range missiles.
For all his bluster, Trump’s words did not appear to be backed by significant military mobilization on either side of the Pacific, and an important, quiet diplomatic channel remained open.
On Sunday, CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, tried to provide assurances that a conflict is avoidable, while also supporting Trump’s tough talk. They said the United States and its allies no longer can afford to stand by as North Korea pushes ahead with the development of a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile.
Associated Press writer Hyung-jin Kim contributed to this report.