No shift in U.S. mil­i­tary foot­ing ev­i­dent

Rhetoric ramps up, but Amer­i­can forces are not tak­ing a wartime pos­ture

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY DAN LAMOTHE

The U.S. mil­i­tary does not ap­pear to be mov­ing to­ward a wartime foot­ing with North Korea de­spite Pres­i­dent Trump’s re­peated threats this week of mil­i­tary ac­tion against Py­ongyang, with few if any ad­di­tional mil­i­tary forces mov­ing into the re­gion and the Pen­tagon chief em­pha­siz­ing diplo­macy over blood­shed.

The mil­i­tary pos­ture has ef­fec­tively re­mained the same even as Trump said Fri­day that he hopes North Korean of­fi­cials “fully un­der­stand the grav­ity of what I said” and that “those words are very, very easy to un­der­stand.”

But it ap­pears Trump is still wag­ing a rhetor­i­cal war rather than pre­par­ing to launch a mil­i­tary one.

Among the signals that a ma­jor U.S. op­er­a­tion is not im­mi­nent is a trip just un­der­way by Ma­rine Gen. Joseph F. Dun­ford Jr., the chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and a small cadre of his staff. He ar­rived Fri­day in Hawaii with plans to visit Ja­pan, South Korea and China, all of which would be in peril if a war be­tween North Korea and the United States ex­ploded.

The air­craft car­rier USS Ron­ald Rea­gan and its ac­com­pa­ny­ing flotilla of de­stroy­ers and guided-mis­sile cruis­ers re­turned to port Wed­nes­day in Yoko­suka, Ja­pan, the Navy an­nounced. The ships and the thou­sands of U.S. ser­vice mem­bers aboard spent three months pa­trolling the re­gion and could have stayed at sea off the coast of the Korean Penin­sula if the Pen­tagon was pre­par­ing for near-term con­flict.

De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis and Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son also have re­peat­edly sought to re­duce ten­sions. Mat­tis, asked Thurs­day about Trump’s com­ments and what the death toll could look like in a nu­clear con­fronta­tion, said that it was his job “to have mil­i­tary op­tions should they be needed” but that he thought a diplo­matic ef­fort led by Tiller­son and Nikki Ha­ley, the U.S. am­bas­sador to the United Na­tions, was gain­ing trac­tion and should re­main at the cen­ter of U.S. pol­icy.

“I want to stay right there,

right now,” said Mat­tis, who com­manded troops in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Ma­rine gen­eral be­fore re­tir­ing. “The tragedy of war is well enough known. It doesn’t need an­other char­ac­ter­i­za­tion beyond the fact that it would be cat­a­strophic.”

De­spite North Korea’s color­ful and threat­en­ing rhetor­i­cal broad­sides, there also are few signs that the coun­try’s leader, Kim Jong Un, is spoil­ing for a fight that could lead to his ouster, and there has been no evac­u­a­tion of Amer­i­can cit­i­zens from South Korea an­nounced, said Michael C. Horowitz, a po­lit­i­cal science pro­fes­sor and au­thor at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia who stud­ies mil­i­tary con­flict.

“The U.S. is pre-po­si­tioned to re­spond to North Korean ag­gres­sion on the penin­sula all the time,” Horowitz said. “But what we are not see­ing yet are true naval move­ments, fam­ily move­ments and troop move­ments that would sug­gest that the mil­i­tary is pre­par­ing for im­mi­nent con­flict.”

The Pen­tagon has nearly 30,000 troops in South Korea to de­ter any North Korean at­tack and has kept at least 28,500 de­ployed there each year since an armistice agree­ment put a halt to fight­ing in the Korean War in 1953. They would al­most cer­tainly be the first into the fight if North Korea de­cided to launch an at­tack, and there is no in­di­ca­tion that their op­er­a­tions have sig­nif­i­cantly changed.

The United States also keeps bombers and other mil­i­tary equip­ment on bases through­out the Pa­cific, in­clud­ing B-1B bombers on the U.S. is­land of Guam. Pa­cific Com­mand said in a tweet Fri­day that the air­craft are ready to carry out mis­sions if called upon, and Trump retweeted that mes­sage, but their avail­abil­ity is rou­tine: Bombers have been de­ployed there on a ro­ta­tional ba­sis for years. The Pen­tagon still has some planes that can drop nu­clear bombs, but none of them are sta­tioned in the Pa­cific.

Ma­rine Lt. Col. Christo­pher Lo­gan, a Pen­tagon spokesman, de­clined to com­ment on whether any ma­jor changes have oc­curred but said that U.S. forces in South Korea re­main ready for any kind of at­tack.

Pa­trick Cronin, the se­nior di­rec­tor of the Asia-Pa­cific Se­cu­rity Pro­gram at the Cen­ter for a New Amer­i­can Se­cu­rity, said that de­spite Trump’s rhetoric, he doesn’t see a ma­jor shift in U.S. pol­icy to­ward North Korea. The plan still ap­pears to be to pres­sure Py­ongyang to stop its nu­clear weapons de­vel­op­ment and be pre­pared to re­spond over­whelm­ingly if they strike, Cronin said.

But Cronin — who said he dis­cussed North Korea with White House of­fi­cials this week — added that there is an im­por­tant dif­fer­ence in Trump’s ap­proach to Kim. By “turn­ing up the bright­ness” on what was done in the past, Trump is still an­gling to put pres­sure on China to get North Korea to come to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble, Cronin said.

“This is the same pol­icy, just amped up a bit,” he said. “We’re putting this through the Hol­ly­wood glitz here.”

Nonethe­less, the stakes re­main high and un­pre­dictable, said Abra­ham M. Den­mark, a for­mer Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial who worked on Asia is­sues at the Pen­tagon. It ap­pears right now that “rhetoric seems to be far out front of the phys­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tion of our pol­icy,” but the lan­guage used by world lead­ers can cre­ate un­in­tended con­se­quences, Den­mark said.

For now, a par­tic­u­larly sen­si­tive ques­tion will be Trump’s re­sponse if North Korea car­ries out its threat to test a mis­sile that lands near Guam but does not hit the is­land.

“I’m sure,” Horowitz said, “that’s a ques­tion that peo­ple are work­ing on in the Pen­tagon that we don’t quite know the an­swer to.”

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