Will the US Attack North Korea? 'We'll See,' Trump Says

In this image distributed Sept. 3, 2017, by the North Korean government, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at an undisclosed location. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)
In this image distributed Sept. 3, 2017, by the North Korean government, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at an undisclosed location. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)

Following meetings with President Donald Trump at the White House, Defense Secretary James Mattis warned Sunday of a potential "massive military response" to North Korea's threats.

Standing outside the West Wing, Mattis read a statement saying, "Any threat to the United States or its territories including Guam or our allies will be met with a massive military response -- a response both effective and overwhelming."

The U.S. was seeking to avoid war, the secretary said, but North Korea’s underground test Sunday of what was possibly a hydrogen bomb had put the potential of a military response at the forefront.

"We are not looking to the total annihilation of a country, namely North Korea. But as I said, we have many options to do so," Mattis said. He did not respond to questions.

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Earlier Sunday, when asked whether he would choose the military option and attack North Korea, Trump said, "We'll see."

He was responding to a shouted question from a pool reporter as he made his way from the White House to nearby St. John's Episcopal Church on Lafayette Square in observance of the national day of prayer for victims of Hurricane Harvey.

The statement from Mattis was his strongest yet in response to a series of provocations from North Korea in perfecting its long-range missiles capable of hitting the U.S. mainland and its nuclear weapons.

Mattis has previously deferred to the diplomatic efforts of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to apply "peaceful pressure" to North Korea and did so again last Wednesday in a meeting at the Pentagon with South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo.

Trump had tweeted on Wednesday, "The U.S. has been talking to North Korea, and paying them extortion money, for 25 years. Talking is not the answer!"

When asked about the Trump Tweet, Mattis responded, We're never out of diplomatic solutions."

The White House refrain has been that "all options are on the table" in confronting the Korea crisis, but they essentially boil down to three that have surfaced in various forms and multiple variations for decades -- diplomacy, war and long-term containment.

In a series of Tweets earlier, Trump amped up the rhetoric on what he has said previously in response to North Korean provocations.

He used the loaded term "appeasement" to criticize South Korea for broaching the possibility of dialogue with the North, called on China once again to rein in North Korea's Kim Jong-un and warned that Kim only responds to the use or threat of force.

"South Korea is finding, as I have told them, that their talk of appeasement with North Korea will not work, they only understand one thing," Trump said in one Tweet.

The office of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who was elected in May, issued a statement rejecting Trump's criticism, noting the horrific casualties and devastation suffered in the Korean War that ended with an armistice in 1953.

"We have experienced an internecine war and can never tolerate another catastrophic war on this land," the statement from Moon's office said. "We will not give up our goal of working together with allies to seek a peaceful denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula."

Trump later Sunday was convening a meeting of his National Security Council led by Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the White House National Security Adviser.

Tremors from North Korea's nuclear test Sunday were felt across South Korea, according to the South's Yonhap news agency. South Korea's Meteorological Administration measured the force of the North's sixth underground nuclear test at 5.7 on the Richter scale, compared to 5.0 in the fifth test in September.

In a tweet, U.S. Pacific Command said that "U.S. forces hope and work for peace in Korea, yet none should doubt America's resolve to defend our allies should diplomacy fail." Mattis said last week that the U.S. was "never out" of diplomatic options.

In a briefing at the White House on Sunday, Mattis said, "We are not looking to the total annihilation of a country namely North Korea, but as I said, we have many options to do so."

The most immediate sign of a U.S. response came from Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin in the form of yet more sanctions against North Korea.

He told "Fox News Sunday" that "We've already started with sanctions against North Korea, but I'm going to start a sanctions package to send to the president, for his strong consideration, that anybody that wants to do trade or business with them would be prevented from doing trade or business with us."

One of the implications was that the U.S. could follow through on previous threats to cut off access to the dollar for Chinese banks accused of money laundering for the North Korean regime.

Any new sanctions on North Korea would come on top of additional sanctions passed by the United Nations last month that were on top of a range of sanctions imposed previously over the years.

China and Russia immediately condemned North Korea's sixth and most powerful by far underground test of a nuclear weapon that North Korea's propaganda outlets claimed was a thermonuclear device, meaning a hydrogen bomb.

U.S. analysts said it was not clear whether the test was of a gas-enhanced fission device, set off by splitting atoms, or a thermonuclear fusion device that fuses atoms in a hydrogen bomb.

Either way, the test coming after North Korea's test launches of two Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) in July, and its test launch of an intermediate-range missile over Japan last month, vastly increased the threat to the U.S. and its allies.

Following the underground blast at the North's Punggye-ri nuclear test site, China through its Foreign Ministry issued its strongest condemnation of North Korea and Kim.

China's official Xinhua news agency published the statement under the header: "China firmly opposes and strongly condemns DPRK nuclear test."

In a preface to the statement, Xinhua noted the claim of North Korea's central television that the North had "successfully detonated an H-bomb, a hydrogen bomb that can be carried by an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). This was the sixth nuclear test the DPRK has undertaken."

"Today, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, despite universal opposition from the international community, conducted another nuclear test. The Chinese government expresses firm opposition to and strong condemnation of the test," said the statement of China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

"China urges the DPRK to cease incorrect actions that worsen tensions and run against its own interests, and return to dialogue to resolve problems," the statement said.

The statement left open the question of what, if anything, China was prepared to do beyond previous claims from Beijing that it was cutting down on trade with North Korea.

Trump has publicly been skeptical of option one on North Korea -- diplomacy. He has declared that the policy of "strategic patience" and diplomacy followed by the administration of former President Barack Obama was "over."

Some in Congress have pushed for option three -- long-term containment, such as that used for decades against the former Soviet Union. That option would involve major increases in spending for missile defense and strengthening military partnership with regional allies.

Mattis and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford have repeatedly warned of the consequences from option two -- military action -- while Trump has said that the U.S. was "locked and loaded" and could rain "fire and fury" on North Korea.

Before the latest test, Mattis said the Trump administration remained focused on a diplomatic solution, but "Do I have military options? Of course I do. That's my responsibility -- to have those."

On a trip to South Korea last month, Dunford said "We're all looking to get out of this situation without a war."

Dunford told Congress in June "I don't have any doubt in my mind, if we go to war with North Korea, that we will win the war," but "we will see casualties unlike anything we've seen in 60 or 70 years."

Any attack on North Korea would be likely to provoke a response from the thousands or artillery and rocket tubes North Korea has trained on metropolitan Seoul and its 24 million people.

Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund that focuses on conflict resolution, said on MSNBC Sunday that "there may be military options" when it comes to North Korea "but there are no military solutions.

Before leaving, or being pushed out, of the Trump administration last month, then-White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, said that seeking a military solution to the North Korean crisis was pointless.

"There's no military solution, forget it," Bannon told the American Prospect. "Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that ten million people in Seoul don't die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don't know what you're talking about, there's no military solution here, they got us," Bannon said.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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