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Continue the war games or rely on dialogue?

U.S. Pacific Command chief says diplomacy — not military action — key to North Korea crisis



Reuters, AP


OSAN, SOUTH KOREA – The head of the U.S. military’s Pacific Command said on Tuesday it was more important to use diplomacy to counter North Korea’s missile threat rather than consider what actions by the reclusive North might trigger a pre-emptive strike.

Adm. Harry Harris was in South Korea to observe annual joint military drills with the South Korean military, which the North called a step toward nuclear conflict masterminded by the U.S. and South Korean “war maniacs.”


“So we hope and we work for diplomatic solutions to the challenge presented by Kim Jong Un,” Harris told reporters at a U.S. air base in South Korea about an hour from the capital, Seoul, referring to the North Korean leader.


He said diplomacy was “the most important starting point” in response to the North’s threat, when asked what actions by North Korea might trigger a pre-emptive U.S. strike against Pyongyang.


“As far as a timeline, it would be crazy for me to share with you those tripwires in advance. If we did that, it would hardly be a military strategy,” he added.


North Korea has pursued missile and nuclear tests in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions and ignored all calls, including from lone major ally China, to stop. It justifies its weapons programs by pointing to perceived U.S. hostility and regularly threatens to destroy the United States.


The United States and South Korean began long-planned joint military exercises on Monday called the Ulchi Freedom Guardian (UFG), which the allies have said were purely defensive and did not aim to increase tension on the Korean Peninsula.


The drills end on Aug. 31 and involve tens of thousands of troops as well as computer simulations designed to prepare for war with a nuclear-capable North Korea.


A North Korean military spokesman repeated the threat of “merciless retaliation” against the United States for readying a preemptive strike and a war of aggression, using the drills as an excuse to mount such an attack.


“The U.S. will be wholly held accountable for the catastrophic consequences to be entailed by such reckless aggressive war maneuvers, as it chose a military confrontation,” the unnamed spokesman said in comments carried by the North’s official KCNA news agency.


The North claims the drills are an invasion rehearsal, senior U.S. military commanders on Tuesday dismissed calls to pause or downsize exercises they called crucial to countering a clear threat from Pyongyang.


The heated North Korean rhetoric, along with occasional weapons tests, is standard fare during the spring and summer war games by allies Seoul and Washington, but always uneasy ties between the Koreas are worse than normal this year following weeks of tit-for-tat threats between U.S. President Donald Trump and Pyongyang in the wake of the North’s two intercontinental ballistic missile tests last month.


There have been calls in both the United States and South Korea to postpone or modify the drills in an attempt to ease hostility on the Korean Peninsula following North Korea’s threat to lob missiles toward the U.S. territory of Guam. But Harris and a visiting group of senior U.S. military commanders said that the drills are critical for the allies to maintain readiness against an aggressive North Korea.


Vincent Brooks, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, said the allies should continue the war games until they “have reason not to.”


“That reason has not yet emerged,” he said.


The U.S. military officials were to travel to the site of a contentious U.S. missile-defense system in South Korea later Tuesday.

The North’s military said in a statement that it will launch an unspecified “merciless retaliation and unsparing punishment” on the United States over the UFG drills that began Monday for an 11-day run.

Despite the threat, an unprompted direct attack is extremely unlikely because the United States vastly outguns Pyongyang, which values the continuation of its dictatorship above all else. Impoverished North Korea hates the drills in part because they force it to respond with expensive military measures of its own.

The North Korean statement accused the United States of deploying unspecified “lethal” weapons for the drills that it says involve a “beheading operation” training aimed at removing absolute ruler Kim.

“No one can vouch that these huge forces concentrated in South Korea will not go over to an actual war action now that the military tensions have reached an extreme pitch in the Korean Peninsula,” the statement said. “Moreover, high-ranking bosses of the U.S. imperialist aggressor forces flew into South Korea to hold a war confab. Such huddle is increasing the gravity of the situation.”

Sen. Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who visited Seoul with other lawmakers, said Tuesday that dialogue would be the best way to defuse the North Korean nuclear standoff though he argued that the United States and its allies must be ready to respond to potential aggression by North Korea with “overwhelming force.”

“Talking with North Korea is not a concession; it is the only way to reach an agreement to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula and to reinforce that our military strength is there only to deter aggression and to defend against attack,” Markey told a news conference.

The UFG drills are largely computer-simulated war games held every summer, and this year’s exercise involves 17,500 American troops and 50,000 South Korean soldiers. No field training like live-fire exercises or tank maneuvering is involved in the UFG drills, in which alliance officers sit at computers to practice how they would engage in battles and hone their decision-making capabilities.



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