SEOUL, South Korea – The United States is prepared to defend South Koreans and Americans against “a limited attack” by North Korea, the Pentagon’s top military official said Monday.
But Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, expressed hope that diplomatic and economic pressure would force the communist state to curb its nuclear weapons program.
“The military dimension today is directly in support of that diplomatic and economic effort,” Dunford told reporters after meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in Seoul. “We are seeking a peaceful resolution to the crisis right now and that’s an important message.”
His comments came as tensions have skyrocketed amid heated rhetoric from the North Koreans and President Donald Trump.
Trump has warned he’s ready to unleash “fire and fury” against the North if it continues to threaten the U.S. North Korea, for its part, has said it will finalize a plan to fire four missiles into waters off Guam and convey the blueprint to leader Kim Jong Un for a decision.
Dunford said it’s important “that the Korean people and the American people know that we are capable of protecting them right now against a limited attack and certainly prepared to respond in the event that deterrence fails.”
But his remarks echoed the cautious language of an op-ed by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in the Wall Street Journal as senior U.S. officials try to tamp down fears of military conflict.
South Korea’s president, meanwhile, urged North Korea to quickly return to dialogue, breaking his silence after a week of threats from both Trump and the North.
"President Moon denounced North Korea, saying the country was disturbing peace on the Korean peninsula and in the region, as well as the global order, by moving ahead with its test launches of missiles with an intercontinental range," presidential spokesman Park Soo-hyun said of the meeting with Dunford, according to the Yonhap News Agency.
Over the weekend, a South Korean presidential adviser expressed concern about Trump’s bellicose rhetoric, saying it was worrisome and fueling the crisis.
“This is very unusual. We do not expect that the president of the United States would make that kind of statement,” Moon Chung-in told the network. “It is a chicken game, but I think what is needed right now is mutual restraint.”
He also criticized the Trump administration for a lack of clarity about its North Korea policy.
“I really don’t see a unified message,” Moon Chung-in said. “We are very much confused. We think the American government has moved from ‘strategic patience’ of the Obama administration into strategic confusion.”
Strategic patience is the term used for ex-President Barack Obama’s policy toward the North, which relied on punishing economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure. Trump has declared that policy dead, but many of his administration’s moves have been similar, including drafting a recent U.N. resolution that imposed tougher sanctions against Pyongyang.
Moon Chung-in said his boss had asked Trump to tone down his rhetoric when they spoke on the phone last week, according to ABC. But that was followed by more fiery statements.
Most recently, Trump tweeted Friday that “Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely. Hopefully Kim Jong Un will find another path!”
Dunford, who arrived in Seoul on Sunday, also met with Defense Minister Song Young-moo and other senior officials before leaving for China.
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