OSAN AIR BASE, South Korea—The Pentagon’s top military officer said Sunday that the focus remains on finding a diplomatic solution to the North Korea crisis, even as the military works up its own options in case they become necessary.
Amid heated rhetoric between President Donald Trump and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, the military is quietly supporting Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s effort to use diplomatic and economic pressure to avert war.
“As a military leader, I have to make sure that the president does have viable military options in the event that the diplomatic and economic pressurization campaign fails,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joe Dunford said in his first public remarks since the crisis escalated with North Korea’s launch of a second intercontinental ballistic missile late last month.
“Even as we develop those options, we are mindful of the consequences of executing those options, and that makes us have more of a sense of urgency to make sure that we’re doing everything we absolutely can to support Secretary Tillerson’s current path,” he said.
Gen. Dunford began a scheduled swing through the region Sunday, with a stop to meet with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, along with newly appointed defense officials and commanders. Gen. Dunford leaves Monday for Beijing and will also visit Tokyo this week, defense officials said.
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The general’s trip comes as senior Trump administration officials said war with North Korea isn’t imminent.
“We’re not closer to war than a week ago, but we are closer to war than we were a decade ago,” the White House’s national security adviser, Gen. H.R. McMaster, said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Echoing that assessment on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo said he didn’t believe an attack from North Korea was “imminent.”
The military also didn’t appear to be preparing for war. No additional forces have been sent to the Korean Peninsula as a result of the crisis, and there has been no new deployment of ships or submarines. The more than 28,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea haven’t been put on special alert, military officials said. And, the fact that Gen. Dunford and his wife, Ellyn, are traveling in the region this week reinforces the sense that there is no imminent threat of war.
Still, both Gen. McMaster and Mr. Pompeo said Mr. Trump was committed to preventing North Korea from acquiring nuclear-tipped missiles that could hit the U.S. Accepting a nuclear-armed North Korea wasn’t an option, they said, because deterrence wouldn’t work with the regime of Mr. Kim, whom Mr. Pompeo called a “rogue leader.”
“Classical deterrence theory, how does that apply to a regime like the regime in North Korea?” Gen. McMaster asked. “A regime that engages in unspeakable brutality against its own people.”
An escalation of threats between Washington and Pyongyang has rattled world leaders, injected uncertainty into markets and sparked fear of a nuclear showdown. The WSJ's Shelby Holliday takes a look back at the week. Photo: AP
Last week, former Obama administration national security adviser Susan Rice argued in a newspaper opinion piece that “we can, if we must tolerate nuclear weapons in North Korea—the same way we tolerated the far greater threat of thousands of Soviet nuclear weapons during the Cold War.”
Many military hands who know the Korean Peninsula point out that tensions and threats from North Korea—Mr. Kim this month pledged to lob missiles toward the Pacific island of Guam—are nothing new. “We should keep in mind that this is not the first time we’ve had this level of rhetoric, it’s not even the first time they’ve threatened Guam,” a military official said.
Still, as Mr. Trump continues to tweet about U.S. posture, saying Friday the military is “locked and loaded” and ready to fight, the military hasn’t shied away from sending its own signals. In recent days, the U.S. touted a flyover of the Korean Peninsula by a pair of its B-1B strategic bombers, an event it rarely acknowledges publicly.
And, in the wake of each of North Korea’s two intercontinental ballistic missile launches last month, the U.S.’s Eighth Army blasted missiles using the Army Tactical Missile System, or ATACMS, to counter the threat. South Korea simultaneously launched its own Hyunmoo Missile II system.
Mr. Pompeo, the CIA director, said that Mr. Trump’s words had put Mr. Kim on notice that the U.S. was serious about addressing the challenge from North Korea. The president “was communicating to many audiences—certainly the rogue leader in North Korea—communicating to him that the strategic patience of the past decades is no longer,” Mr. Pompeo said.
Naturally, the U.S. military is declining to talk publicly about what it might do militarily. A pre-emptive strike on North Korea remains unlikely, though, military officials have said.
Dissuading Mr. Trump from a certain course of action typically requires advisers to make the argument repeatedly, officials have said. Military advisers who don’t support a pre-emptive strike believe they will have to keep the president convinced that the U.S. would be unwise to take that approach, according to people in Washington familiar with the matter.
Gen. Dunford said the purpose of his Monday visit to Seoul, which sits just 35 miles south of the border with North Korea, is to reassure a critical ally. He is expected to examine the options the U.S. and South Korean militaries could execute if a conflict were to come to pass, officials said.
He is also set to discuss with Mr. Moon the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or Thaad missile defense system, Pacific Command officials said. After extensive discussion between the U.S. and South Korea, a Thaad battery was deployed near a golf course in South Korea this spring to help defend against any missile launches from the North. Because of political opposition in South Korea, only two of the six launchers were deployed. But since the launch of the second ICBM, Mr. Moon is more amenable and The U.S. and South Korea are now in talks to deploy the system with its full complement of launchers, U.S. Pacific Command officials said.
Meantime, the U.S. and South Korea will soon begin their annual joint military exercises, known as Ulchi Freedom Guardian, a two-week command and control exercise that primarily tests the integration of U.S. and South Korean forces.
U.S. defense officials said the exercise isn’t expected to amount to a large show of force and that there are no plans for expansion under the current circumstances. Ulchi Freedom Guardian typically sees an additional 2,000 to 3,000 U.S. troops here for the next couple of weeks.
Meanwhile, as people on Guam prepare for the potential of an attack, some U.S. military officials say that Pyongyang’s capabilities make it unlikely Mr. Kim could get missiles anywhere close to the island.
The North Korean leader hasn’t proved he can make the technology work with any precision, an official said. But North Korea has moved faster to develop its capabilities than the U.S. believed it would. Pacific Command officials said they have to take Mr. Kim at his word.
“They have proven through these recent launches that they have increasing range there,” the U.S. Pacific Command official said. “We have to take these threats seriously.”
Corrections & Amplifications
The annual U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises, named Ulchi Freedom Guardian, typically draw an additional 2,000 to 3,000 U.S. troops to the Korean peninsula for the next couple of weeks. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the number as 200 to 300 because of inaccurate information provided by a U.S. military spokesman. (Aug. 13, 2017)
—Bob Davis in Washington contributed to this article.
Write to Gordon Lubold at Gordon.Lubold@wsj.com