Senior U.S. national security officials said Sunday that a military confrontation with North Korea is not imminent, but they cautioned that the possibility of war is greater than it was a decade ago.
CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, tried to provide assurances that a conflict is avoidable, while also supporting Trump’s tough talk. They said on the Sunday talk show circuit that 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.
“We’re not closer to war than a week ago, but we are closer to war than we were a decade ago,” McMaster said, adding that the Trump administration is prepared to deal militarily with North Korea, if necessary.
“The U.S. military is locked and loaded every day,” McMaster said, repeating Trump’s warning.
Pompeo said “there’s nothing imminent today” and said the United States has a “pretty good idea” of North Korea’s intentions, but he declined to provide specifics. The CIA chief described North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as “pretty isolated today” and added that Kim is “rational” and “responds to adverse circumstances.”
“The reaction in North Korea that we are intending to get is an understanding that America is no longer going to have the strategic patience that it’s had that has permitted him to continue to develop his weapons program,” Pompeo said. “It’s that straightforward.”
“It is the case they’re closer,” Pompeo said on “Fox News Sunday,” discussing North Korea’s proximity toward deploying a nuclear weapon on the U.S. mainland. “They are moving towards that at an ever-alarming rate.”
The top U.S. military officer, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, is traveling in Asia and is expected to meet with leaders in South Korea, Japan and China. Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters traveling with him 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 made a plea for coolheadedness in a phone conversation with Trump on Saturday, urging both sides to avoid words or actions that could worsen the situation.
The call came after Trump intensified the rhetoric against North Korea on Friday, declaring the U.S. military “locked and loaded” and warning Kim that he “will regret it fast” if he takes any action against U.S. territories or allies.
Trump has pushed China to pressure North Korea to halt a nuclear weapons program that experts say is nearing the capability of targeting the United States. China, the North’s biggest economic partner and source of aid, has said it alone can’t compel its wayward ally to end its nuclear and missile programs.
The White House said in a statement that Trump and Xi “agreed North Korea must stop its provocative and escalatory behavior.” It also said that the two “reiterated their mutual commitment to denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
State-run China Central Television quoted Xi as telling Trump the “relevant parties must maintain restraint and avoid words and deeds that would exacerbate the tension on the Korean Peninsula.”
But on Friday, Trump appeared to set another red line — the mere utterance of threats — that would trigger a U.S. attack against North Korea and “big, big trouble” for Kim.
New UN sanctions condemning North Korea’s rapidly developing nuclear program drew fresh ire and threats from the North. Trump, responding to a report that U.S. intelligence indicates Pyongyang can now put a nuclear warhead on its long-range missiles, vowed to rain down “fire and fury” if challenged.
The North then came out with a threat to lob four intermediate-range Hwasong-12 missiles near Guam, a tiny U.S. territory some 2,000 miles from Pyongyang.