Is U.S. prac­tic­ing for war against NKorea?

Many fear Wash­ing­ton pre­par­ing for all-out con­flict with nu­clear-armed state

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - WORLD - By Matthew Pennington

WASH­ING­TON: Does the omi­nous rhetoric from Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and re­peated flights by U.S. strate­gic bombers over the Korean Penin­sula mean Wash­ing­ton is ready­ing for what many feel is un­think­able – a mil­i­tary con­flict with a nu­cle­ar­armed North Korea that would put mil­lions of civil­ians at risk?

U.S. B-1B bombers flew this week over South Korea with fighter jet es­corts from the al­lied na­tion, in what’s be­come an in­creas­ingly fa­mil­iar show of force to Py­ongyang. It came just days af­ter Trump said “only one thing will work” with North Korea and re­ferred, am­bigu­ously, to “the calm be­fore the storm.”

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly Thurs­day moved to tamp down fears of war. He said Amer­i­cans should be con­cerned about North Korea’s in­creas­ing nu­clear and mis­sile ca­pa­bil­i­ties, but said the threat is “man­age­able” for now. Still, he added the iso­lated na­tion can’t be al­lowed to de­velop the abil­ity to strike the U.S. home­land.

Although Trump has dis­par­aged the chances of suc­cess­ful ne­go­ti­a­tions with the North, Kelly said: “Let’s hope that diplo­macy works.”

Jim Schoff, a for­mer se­nior Pen­tagon ad­viser for East Asia pol­icy, said noth­ing in the cur­rent stand­off sug­gests “U.S. pol­i­cy­mak­ers think we’re on the brink of all-out war.”

But Schoff added that doesn’t mean the ad­min­is­tra­tion is bluff­ing or has ruled out some kind of lim­ited strike in re­sponse to a North Korean provo­ca­tion. He said most telling were the re­peated B1-B bomber flights, which he said were not in­tended just to sig­nal U.S. re­solve, but to prac­tice mak­ing the long flight from the U.S. Pa­cific ter­ri­tory of Guam where they are based, and “to get a feel for what kind of air de­fenses North Korea has and how we see them re­act.”

Trump Tues­day dis­cussed with mil­i­tary chiefs, in­clud­ing De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis, “a range of op­tions to re­spond to any form of North Korean ag­gres­sion or, if nec­es­sary, to pre­vent North Korea from threat­en­ing the United States and its al­lies with nu­clear weapons,” the White House said.

“If we made a de­ci­sion to strike a few strate­gic tar­gets in North Korea it could hap­pen very quickly,” said Rob Givens, a for­mer Air Force bri­gadier gen­eral who served as deputy as­sis­tant chief of staff for op­er­a­tions of U.S. Forces Korea. He said un­less the U.S. de­cided to un­der­take a vis­i­ble mil­i­tary buildup to de­ter Py­ongyang,thep­ub­licwa­sun­like­lyto see an at­tack com­ing.

For now, there’s lit­tle in­di­ca­tion that ei­ther the U.S. or North Korea is pre­par­ing for a re­sump­tion of the 1950-53 Korean War, which dev­as­tated the penin­sula.

North Korea, which suf­fers food short­ages, is in the midst of a fall har­vest for which mil­i­tary man­power is needed. Civil­ians are not re­ported to be mo­bi­liz­ing for war. Ad­dress­ing a rul­ing party meet­ing last week­end, leader Kim Jong Un railed against “U.S. im­pe­ri­al­ists,” but the bulk of his speech was about the econ­omy.

In South Korea, there’s been no move to pre­pare civil­ians for evac­u­a­tion, among them more than 100,000 Amer­i­cans. They in­clude thou­sands of fam­ily mem­bers of the 28,500 U.S. troops based there. Many live in the cap­i­tal, Seoul, in range of thou­sands of North Korean ar­tillery guns and rock­ets po­si­tioned close to the tense fron­tier.

Givens said if civil­ians were not evac­u­ated be­fore a strike, the U.S. and its al­lies may have to go through the prepa­ra­tions of mo­bi­liz­ing for a wider war and evac­u­at­ing civil­ians even as they fight the North Kore­ans.

Trump’s then-White House strate­gic ad­viser, Steve Ban­non, dis­missed the threat of U.S. mil­i­tary ac­tion as a bluff shortly be­fore he was fired in Au­gust.

“Un­til some­body solves the part of the equa­tion that shows me that 10 mil­lion peo­ple in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 min­utes from con­ven­tional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talk­ing about, there’s no mil­i­tary so­lu­tion here, they got us,” Ban­non said in an in­ter­view with The Amer­i­can Prospect.

Dur­ing past high ten­sion with North Korea, the U.S. has con­tem­plated but not re­sorted to of­fen­sive mil­i­tary ac­tion.

Prob­a­bly the clos­est the en­e­mies have come to re­sum­ing the Korean War came in 1976, af­ter North Korean troops blud­geoned to death two U.S. mil­i­tary of­fi­cers in the DMZ over a dis­pute about a tree ob­scur­ing the al­lies’ line of sight. The U.S. mo­bi­lized fighter jets and B-52 bombers and de­ployed an air­craft car­rier off the coast.

Among the op­tions con­sid­ered by the Ger­ald Ford ad­min­is­tra­tion were an airstrike at the eastern end of the DMZo­ra­nar­tillery­at­tack­on­aNorth Korean bar­racks. In the end, Ford de­cided against mil­i­tary reprisals diue to the po­ten­tial for es­ca­la­tion, and the U.S. set­tled for cut­ting down the tree amid a mas­sive show of force. The North’s leader at the time, Kim Il Sung, sub­se­quently ex­pressed re­gret over the ini­tial in­ci­dent.

In 1994, the Bill Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion con­sid­ered bomb­ing North Korea’s nu­clear com­plex af­ter it be­gan de­fu­el­ing a re­ac­tor that could pro­vide fis­sile ma­te­rial for bombs. As mil­i­tary chiefs in Wash­ing­ton planned for con­tin­gen­cies, the U.S. am­bas­sador and com­man­der of U.S. forces in Korea se­cretly be­gan plan­ning to evac­u­ate Amer­i­cans.

The con­fronta­tion was headed off af­ter for­mer Pres­i­dent Jimmy Carter met with Kim Il Sung, lead­ing to an aid-for-dis­ar­ma­ment agree­ment that en­dured for nearly a decade.

Givens, who served in Korea dur­ing the most se­ri­ous re­cent war scare on the penin­sula, in 2010 when a South­ern war­ship was tor­pe­doed and the North shelled an is­land, cau­tioned that North Korea was likely to fight back against even a lim­ited strike, mean­ing the U.S. would have to pre­pare for a ma­jor con­flict if it took that step.

“If I were in charge, I wouldn’t do a strate­gic strike un­less I was pre­pared to go all the way,” he said.

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