North Korea rhetoric from White House scaled back

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY CARLO MUÑOZ AND DAN BOY­LAN

The White House sig­nif­i­cantly scaled back its rhetoric against North Korea on Sun­day, with both the na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser and the na­tion’s top spy say­ing the U.S. is no closer to war with the com­mu­nist na­tion, de­spite the pres­i­dent’s vow to un­leash “fire and fury” against the North should it lash out mil­i­tar­ily against America and its Pa­cific al­lies.

North Korea’s re­cent provo­ca­tions tied to the coun­try’s nu­clear am­bi­tions, which have drawn the ire of Wash­ing­ton and the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity, have es­ca­lated the on­go­ing war of words be­tween Py­ongyang and Wash­ing­ton.

But the coun­try’s for­mi­da­ble con­ven­tional mil­i­tary, which is the fourth-largest armed force in the world, poses a much more se­ri­ous threat to U.S. al­lies in the re­gion, De­fense Depart­ment an­a­lysts say.

Some es­ti­mates put Py­ongyang’s to­tal mil­i­tary force of nearly 1 mil­lion

ac­tive-duty and re­serve troops, backed by an ag­ing but still ef­fec­tive fleet of fight­ers, bombers, war­ships, tanks and sub­marines.

The North “fields a large, con­ven­tional, for­ward-de­ployed mil­i­tary that re­tains the ca­pa­bil­ity to in­flict se­ri­ous dam­age” on the penin­sula, says a 2015 Pen­tagon re­view of the coun­try’s com­bat ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

“Al­though North Korea is un­likely to at­tack on a scale that would risk regime sur­vival by invit­ing over­whelm­ing U.S.-ROK coun­ter­at­tacks, North Korea’s thresh­old for smaller, asym­met­ric at­tacks” re­mains the pre­dom­i­nant con­ven­tional threat, the Pen­tagon as­sess­ment notes.

How­ever, North Korea’s bur­geon­ing nu­clear ca­pa­bil­i­ties re­main at the fore­front of U.S. de­fense and na­tional se­cu­rity of­fi­cials as the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s tact to­ward Py­ongyang con­tin­ues to vac­il­late be­tween Mr. Trump’s hard-line rhetoric and that of the U.S. de­fense and in­tel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ties.

Last week, while on a work­ing va­ca­tion in Bed­min­ster, New Jersey, Mr. Trump’s re­fusals to rule out pre-emp­tive mil­i­tary ac­tion against the North if it car­ries out a threat against U.S. forces in Guam caused global lead­ers to call for both sides to ease ten­sions.

But on Sun­day, Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­viser H.R. McMaster and CIA Di­rec­tor Mike Pom­peo swung the White House rhetoric back to­ward a more prag­matic stance on the North’s saber rat­tling.

Ap­pear­ing Sun­day on ABC’s “This Week,” Mr. McMaster ac­knowl­edged that North Korea’s dan­gers and threat to the world are “very, very clear.” But de­spite that over­all threat posed by Py­ongyang, “I think we’re not closer to war than a week ago,” he said. “But we are closer to war than we were a decade ago.”

The Korean Peo­ple’s Army

Of North Korea’s pop­u­la­tion of 25 mil­lion, 4 per­cent to 5 per­cent make up the coun­try’s ac­tive-duty army, navy and air forces, which are backed up by the coun­try’s re­serve and para­mil­i­tary units con­sist­ing of 25 per­cent to 30 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion, the Pen­tagon as­sess­ment con­cluded.

Aside from its ef­forts to de­velop a nu­clear ca­pa­bil­ity, Py­ongyang has fun­neled bil­lions of dol­lars into re­vamp­ing its Cold War-era mil­i­tary.

Fo­cus­ing on de­vel­op­ment of mo­bile mis­sile sys­tems Hwa­song and No Dong­class of short and medium range mis­siles and long-range ar­tillery weapons, The North’s “force mod­ern­iza­tion will likely em­pha­size de­fen­sive and asym­met­ric at­tack ca­pa­bil­i­ties to counter tech­no­log­i­cally su­pe­rior” sys­tems fielded by the U.S. and its al­lies.

With a range of nearly 500 miles, the Hwa­song-7 short-range bal­lis­tic mis­sile in use by Korean forces can re­li­ably strike tar­gets as far as south­west Ja­pan, while the No Dong-class medium-range bal­lis­tic mis­sile has all of Ja­pan and sur­round­ing is­land chains well within its 930-mile range.

Part of that heavy in­vest­ment in non­con­ven­tional com­bat ca­pa­bil­i­ties fa­vored by the North Korean regime are most ap­par­ent in Py­ongyang’s fo­cus on de­vel­op­ing its own cadre of spe­cial forces.

North Korean spe­cial op­er­a­tions forces “are among the most highly trained, well-equipped, best-fed and highly mo­ti­vated forces in the [Korean Peo­ple’s Army],” says the Pen­tagon.

“As North Korea’s con­ven­tional ca­pa­bil­i­ties de­cline rel­a­tive to [South Korea] and United States, North Korea ap­pears to in­creas­ingly re­gard [spe­cial op­er­a­tions forces] ca­pa­bil­i­ties as vi­tal for asym­met­ric co­er­cion,” U.S. of­fi­cials say.

North Korean spe­cial op­er­a­tions units, “in­clud­ing air­borne, re­con­nais­sance … com­man­dos” and Py­ongyang’s own ver­sion of the vaunted Navy SEALs “all em­pha­size speed of move­ment and sur­prise at­tack to ac­com­plish their mis­sions,” they add.

This fo­cus on de­fen­sive mea­sures and spe­cial op­er­a­tions ca­pa­bil­i­ties by Py­ongyang is partly be­cause of the coun­try’s in­abil­ity to keep its mil­i­tary apace with mod­ern ad­vance­ments seen in more mod­ern forces, Pen­tagon an­a­lysts say.

Most of the 4,200 tanks, 800 fight­ers, 750 war­ships and 14,000 rocket and heavy ar­tillery weapons in Py­ongyang’s ar­se­nal are Rus­sian and Chi­nese-built weapons dat­ing back to the early 1970s, depart­ment of­fi­cials as­sess.

North Korea “has not ac­quired new fighter air­craft in decades, re­lies on older air de­fense sys­tems, lacks bal­lis­tic mis­sile de­fense, its Navy does not train for blue wa­ter op­er­a­tions,” ac­cord­ing to the De­fense Depart­ment.

Its more mod­ern mo­bile mis­sile sys­tems still rely on trac­tor-towed launch­ers, “while most other coun­tries are im­prov­ing the mo­bil­ity of such sys­tems.”

‘Noth­ing im­mi­nent’

In re­cent weeks, Py­ongyang has ac­cel­er­ated ef­forts to de­velop a minia­ture nu­clear bomb and the mis­siles to de­liver it as far as the U.S. main­land — de­spite strin­gent op­po­si­tion and sanc­tions from the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity.

Last month, North Korean mil­i­tary suc­cess­fully launched its first in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­sile. The re­sults of those un­prece­dented launches show the North has the pre­lim­i­nary ca­pa­bil­ity to hit tar­gets as far as the West Coast of the U.S., though Py­ongyang made its most spe­cific threat against the Pa­cific is­land of Guam, a U.S. ter­ri­tory.

On Thurs­day, De­fense Sec­re­tary James Mat­tis said the Pen­tagon has de­vel­oped mil­i­tary op­tions if North Korea at­tempts to launch at­tacks against U.S. ter­ri­to­ries in Guam or else­where in the Pa­cific. He told re­porters that depart­ment lead­ers had a “mil­i­tary so­lu­tion” for Py­ongyang in place.

But on Sun­day, Mr. Pom­peo down­played any im­me­di­ate risk to the U.S.

“There’s noth­ing im­mi­nent,” he said dur­ing an ap­pear­ance on “Fox News Sun­day” “There’s no in­tel­li­gence in­di­cat­ing we’re on the cusp of a nu­clear war.”

That said, he did warn Py­ongyang that Wash­ing­ton had lost its “strate­gic pa­tience” and echoed wor­ries that North Korea’s nu­clear ca­pa­bil­i­ties are pro­gress­ing rapidly.

“Each time they test an­other mis­sile, or if they should con­duct a nu­clear weapons test, they de­velop ex­per­tise, they ex­pand the en­ve­lope,” he said.

When asked whether North Korea has nu­clear weapons ca­pa­ble of hit­ting the U.S., he replied that “it is prob­a­bly fair to say they are mov­ing to­ward that at an ever-alarm­ing rate.”

“We are hope­ful that the leader of the coun­try will un­der­stand [Mr. Trump’s re­marks] in pre­cisely the way they were in­tended, to per­mit him to get to a place where we can get the nu­clear weapons off the penin­sula,” Mr. Pom­peo said. “That’s the best mes­sage you can de­liver to some­one who is putting America at risk.”

Mr. McMaster lauded the new round of eco­nomic sanc­tions handed down against the North by mem­bers of the United Na­tions Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, tar­get­ing North Korea’s ma­jor ex­ports such as coal, iron and seafood, in re­sponse to the July tests.

But he also noted that the sanc­tions needed time to take ef­fect.

Rein­ing in North Korea “de­mands a con­certed ef­fort by the United States, but with our al­lies and with all re­spon­si­ble na­tions,” he said. “And this is what you’ve seen the pres­i­dent do is bring to­gether all na­tions.”

Mr. Pom­peo also praised diplo­matic ef­forts by Sec­re­tary of State Rex W. Tiller­son and U.S. Am­bas­sador to the United Na­tions Nikki Ha­ley for per­suad­ing China and Rus­sia to join in a unan­i­mous U.N. vote ap­prov­ing the sanc­tions.

Former De­fense Sec­re­tary Leon E. Panetta ar­gued that North Korea un­der­stood the stakes in the stand­off and that Kim Jong-un’s com­mand over the coun­try could be at stake.

“I think the North Kore­ans un­der­stand that if they take the wrong step, it’s the end of the regime, pe­riod,” Mr. Panetta said on CBS’s “Face the Na­tion.”

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