The US admiral in charge of a potential conflict with North Korea has said his goal is to bring Kim Jong-un “to his senses, not to his knees”, as the Trump administration signalled it intends to use economic and diplomatic pressure to rid the peninsula of nuclear weapons.
Tensions between the US and North Korea are white-hot before an anticipated sixth nuclear test and accelerating development of long-range missiles.
Donald Trump invited the entire US Senate to the White House yesterday for for an unusual classified briefing on the situation.
But the administration struggled to explain any new strategy to rein in Kim Jong-un.
Admiral Harry Harris, the commander of US Pacific Command, sounded dire notes before a congressional panel yesterday.
He testified that he did not have confidence that North Korea would refrain from “something precipitous” should it succeed in scaling down a nuclear weapon to mount on a ballistic missile.
While Harris did not provide any timetable for North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, he suggested that its missile tests indicated Pyongyang will at some point be able to launch a nuclear missile at the US unless stopped by an external force, diplomatically or militarily.
“Just as Thomas Edison is believed to have failed 1000 times before successfully inventing the light bulb, so too Kim Jong-un will keep trying. One of these days soon, he will succeed,” Harris told the House armed services committee.
A joint statement from secretary of state Rex Tillerson, defence secretary James Mattis and national intelligence director Dan Coats declared that “past efforts have failed” to stop the advance of Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programmes.
But the three senior officials said that to convince the North to dismantle those programmes, Trump would pressure Pyongyang “by tightening economic sanctions and pursuing diplomatic measures with our allies and regional partners” – an approach adopted by the past three US administrations.
During the hearing, Harris suggested that Kim Jong-un’s statements indicated that stripping North Korea of nuclear weapons – the goal outlined by the cabinet officials – is no longer a realistic option.
“As former secretary of defence William Perry once said, we must deal with North Korea ‘as it is, not as we might wish it to be’.”
The statement from the three cabinet officials did not outline any additional military steps.
At the White House meeting, Trump pledged a different course on North Korea stemming from his ability to “get things done”, according to a Senate aide.
But members of both parties left the meeting concerned that the White House does not “have an effective plan in place and doesn’t understand the level of effort necessary to reach a diplomatic solution”, the aide said.
Harris indicated a preference for a sizeable show of military force in order to deter North Korea from launching a devastating assault.
That would include sending the guided-missile submarine USS Michigan to South Korea’s port city of Busan, overflying the Korean peninsula with B-1 and B-52 bombers, and ordering the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier strike group to the waters near Korea.
Harris acknowledged that possible reprisals stemming from a strike against North Korea would risk the lives of millions of Koreans in Seoul, as well as the 24,000 US troops in South Korea.
“I would say what we’re faced with is that… a lot more Koreans and Japanese and Americans dying if North Korea achieves its nuclear aims and does what [Kim Jong-un] has said it’s going to do,” Harris said.
Backing Trump, Harris said China had substantial leverage against North Korea.
The admiral said the recent summit between Trump and China’s president, Xi Jinping, reduced the risk of any military conflict escalating to include China.
“It’s early days, but China seems to be helpful here,” Harris said.