Amid increasing tensions over North Korea's nuclear capability, senior U.S. officials are sending a double-edged message: America does not seek conflict, but its military is preparing for war on the peninsula.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson offered reassurance to North Korea that "we are not your enemy," though he wants help from China to push for conditions that could lead to talks with the North, The Associated Press reported.
He said Tuesday that the United States does "not seek a regime change. We do not seek a collapse of the regime. We do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula," the AP reported. But Tillerson said the U.S. does not think productive talks would result if North Korea came with the intention of maintaining its nuclear weapons.
Tillerson's comments came a week after North Korea's July 28 launch of a missile that demonstrates the regime's progress in producing a missile that is capable of hitting the United States, experts maintain.
Despite Tillerson's attempts at diplomacy, it's clear that U.S. military officials are planning for the worst.
"The one thing I am worried about -- frankly, candidly -- is this situation with North Korea is very serious," U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said at a July 27 National Press Club event.
Milley would not get into specifics because "obviously, we have plans," but a war in Korea would be "highly deadly; it would be horrific."
"War on the Korean Peninsula would be terrible; however, a nuclear weapon detonating in Los Angeles would be terrible. The comment that has been out there 'there are no good options' is a very apt comment," Milley said.
North Korea has a wide array of conventional artillery and rockets, Milley said. It also has "a sizable conventional force. They have got a sizable chemical capability not even including the nuclear weapon piece."
"Do I think that North Korea's military would be destroyed? I do," he said. "I believe that the United States military, in combination with the South Korean military, would utterly destroy the North Korean military, but that would be done at high cost in terms of human life -- in terms of infrastructure. There are economic consequences to a war on the Korean Peninsula. There is a whole wide variety of consequences.
"That doesn't relieve us of the responsibility of choice," Milley continued. "And we are going to have to make conscious decisions that are going to have significant consequences. It's not going to be a pretty picture, I can tell you that. It would be very violent."
Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, immediately phoned his South Korean counterpart following North Korea's second test launch July 28 of a missile with ICBM range to reach the U.S.
Dunford underlined the U.S. military's "ironclad commitment" to the U.S.-South Korean alliance against the North and "also discussed military response options" to the growing North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) threat, according to military officials.
The missile was launched from Mup'yong-ni, north of the capital Pyongyang, near the Chinese border, and reached an altitude of about 3,700 kilometers (about 2,300 miles), according to the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The missile flew for about 45 minutes and traveled about 1,000 kilometers (about 621 miles) before landing in Japanese waters, the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff said. "It is estimated that it was a more advanced type of an ICBM compared to the previous one, based on the range," the South Korean statement said.
On July 4, North Korea launched a missile that U.S. officials for the first time classified as an ICBM with the range to hit Alaska.
The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) determined that the latest missile launch did not pose a threat to North America, but the test appeared to show North Korea is making significant progress in developing an accurate missile with the range to hit the U.S. mainland.
The U.S. has yet to determine whether North Korea has developed the technology to fit a nuclear warhead atop an ICBM that could survive re-entry into the atmosphere, but the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency reportedly has significantly shortened the timeframe for when North Korea could have such a weapon.
Previous estimates said North Korea was at least three years away from having the capability, but The Washington Post reported that the DIA recently concluded North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will be able to produce a "reliable, nuclear-capable ICBM" sometime in 2018.
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at email@example.com.