WASHINGTON/SEOUL (Reuters) – The United States regards North Korea as the world’s greatest threat but despite an escalation in tensions over its ballistic missile and nuclear program, Pyongyang has not changed its military posture, the top U.S. military officer said on Tuesday.
The assessment by Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, about Pyongyang’s military stance was in contrast to a South Korean lawmaker who said Pyongyang had boosted defenses on its east coast.
Bellicose statements by U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in recent weeks have created fears that a miscalculation could lead to action with untold ramifications, particularly since Pyongyang conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test on Sept. 3.
“While the political space is clearly very charged right now, we haven’t seen a change in the posture of North Korean forces, and we watch that very closely,” Dunford told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on his reappointment to his post.
North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho on Monday accused Trump of declaring war on the North and threatened that Pyongyang would shoot down U.S. warplanes flying near the peninsula after American bombers flew close to the Korean peninsula last weekend. Ri was reacting to Trump’s Twitter comments that Kim and Ri “won’t be around much longer” if they acted on their threats toward the United States.
North Korea has been working to develop nuclear-tipped missiles capable of hitting the U.S. mainland, which Trump has said he will never allow. Dunford said Pyongyang will have a nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile “soon,” and it was only a matter of a “very short time”.
In terms of a sense of urgency, “North Korea certainly poses the greatest threat today,” Dunford testified.
“We clearly have postured our forces to respond in the event of a provocation or a conflict,” the general added.
South Korean lawmaker Lee Cheol-uoo, briefed by the country’s spy agency, said North Korea was bolstering its defenses by moving aircraft to its east coast and taking other measures after the flight of the U.S. bombers. Lee said the United States appeared to have disclosed the flight route of the bombers intentionally because North Korea seemed to be unaware.
‘CAPABILITY TO DETER’
During a visit to India, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said diplomatic efforts continued.
“You have seen unanimous United Nations Security Council resolutions passed that have increased the pressure, economic pressure and diplomatic pressure, on the North, and at the same time, we maintain the capability to deter North Korea’s most dangerous threats,” he told reporters in the Indian capital.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders on Monday calling the notion that the United States had declared war “absurd.”
Speaking in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said war on the Korean peninsula would have no winner.
“We hope the U.S. and North Korean politicians have sufficient political judgment to realize that resorting to military force will never be a viable way to resolve the peninsula issue and their own concerns,” Lu said.
“We also hope that both sides can realize that being bent on assertiveness and provoking each other will only increase the risk of conflict and reduce room for policy maneuvers. War on the peninsula will have no winner.”
China’s fuel exports to North Korea fell in August, along with iron ore imports from the isolated nation, as trade slowed after the latest U.N. sanctions, but coal shipments resumed after a five-month hiatus, customs data showed on Tuesday.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in urged Kim Jong Un to resume military talks and reunions of families split by the 1950-53 Korean War to ease tension.
“Like I’ve said multiple times before, if North Korea stops its reckless choices, the table for talks and negotiations always remains open,” Moon said.
He was speaking at a event to mark an Oct. 4, 2007, summit declaration promoting goodwill signed between then-South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun and his North Korean counterpart, Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un’s father.
In Moscow, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said it was working behind the scenes to find a political solution and that it plans to hold talks with a representative of North Korea’s foreign ministry who is due to arrive in Moscow on Tuesday, the RIA news agency cited the North’s embassy to Russia as saying.
U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer bombers, escorted by fighter jets, flew east of North Korea in a show of force after the heated exchange of rhetoric between Trump and Kim.
The United States and South Korea are technically still at war with North Korea after the 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce and not a peace treaty.
Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols at the UNITED NATIONS, Dmitry Solovyov in MOSCOW and Malini Menon in NEW DELHI, Idrees Ali in WASHINGTON; Writing by Paul Tait and Ben Blanchard; Editing by Nick Macfie and Clarence Fernandez