The more than 28,000 U.S. troops in South Korea are maintaining their traditional "ready to fight tonight" posture in South Korea following the collapse of the proposed peace summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Pentagon officials said Thursday.
The U.S. is also prepared should North Korea resume test missile launches, which Kim had suspended in a goodwill gesture leading up to the now-canceled June 12 summit in Singapore.
"We'll be ready if that happens," said Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, director of the Pentagon's Joint Staff.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was aware of Trump's decision before he announced publicly that he would not be going to Singapore, said Dana White, the Pentagon's chief spokesperson.
At a Pentagon briefing with McKenzie, White declined to characterize Mattis' reaction but said he had been "cautiously optimistic" that the summit could achieve positive results on the denuclearization of North Korea's arsenal.
Mattis and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford were in Colorado for a change of command ceremony at U.S. Northern Command, but White said Mattis had spoken with the president by phone.
"This was a White House decision" to cancel the summit, she said. "The secretary is used to dynamic situations. This is nothing new to him. The secretary was always cautiously optimistic about how this would go" and the way forward was "frankly in the hands of the North Koreans."
In a statement earlier, Trump said he had no choice but to cancel the summit in light of the bellicose rhetoric and threats recently coming from the North that put in doubt the possibility for achieving a breakthrough on denuclearization and adopting a formal peace treaty to replace the armistice on the peninsula.
In a letter to Kim, Trump said, "Sadly, based on the tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement, I feel it is inappropriate, at this time, to have this long-planned meeting."
Much of the letter was conciliatory, and Trump held out the possibility for talks at a future date, but he added a warning.
You talk about your nuclear capabilities," he said, "but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used."
The cancellation was a major setback for South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who was the catalyst in the opening to the North and met with Kim last month in Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas.
Trump's announcement appeared to catch the Seoul government by surprise.
"We're trying to figure out what President Trump's intention is and the exact meaning of it," a representative of Moon's office said, according to South Korea's Yonhap news agency.
The Seoul government later issued an official statement.
"It is very regretful and disconcerting that the US-NK summit will not happen as planned," the statement said, but "the sincerity of the affected parties who have been working to resolve the problem has not changed."
The statement appeared to attribute the cancellation to misunderstandings between the U.S. and North Korea.
"It is hard to resolve sensitive and difficult diplomatic issues with the current way of communications. [We] hope that the leaders resolve problems through direct and close dialogue," it said.
Trump's announcement overshadowed the attempt by North Korea to show its good faith by destroying in a series of explosions its only known nuclear test site at Punggye-ri in the northeast. The blasts took down several structures and also reportedly destroyed test tunnels.
Noh Kyu-duk, a spokesman for South Korea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told reporters at the site that the destruction at Punggye-ri could "serve as a chance for complete denuclearization going forward."
At the Pentagon, White said that the U.S. and South Korea are continuing to exert military and diplomatic pressure on the North to counter the threats.
"We are still continuing the maximum pressure campaign; that hasn't changed for us," she said. "In terms of 'we are ready to fight tonight,' that has always been the case."
McKenzie said the recently approved defense budget of $716 billion also allowed the U.S. to boost the readiness of forces in the region.
He said, "The plus-up of the recent budget is going to let us address a number of readiness concerns, all of which will improve the readiness of the military, including forces that might be called on to deploy and fight if we had to conduct operations on the Korean peninsula.
"I would also tell you that we maintain a very high state of vigilance in regard to the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] and we will continue that going forward to include our missile defense activities," McKenzie continued. "If any provocative actions occur from DPRK, we'll certainly, in concert with our partners and allies in the region, be ready for it."
The escalating North Korean threats cited by Trump in canceling the talks began earlier this month as the North's propaganda outlets, which had toned down the rhetoric as terms were negotiated for the summit, renewed charges that U.S. and South Korean joint military exercises were a pretext for invasion.
The North's Korean Central News Agency cited the presence of B-52 strategic bombers and F-22 Raptor fighters in the Max Thunder joint air exercise, which was scheduled to end Friday. Several F-22s did participate in Max Thunder, but the Pentagon denied that a B-52 also flew in the exercise.
"I'm not going to speculate on what factored into the decision-making process on the part of North Korea," White said in reference to Max Thunder.
"I can tell you that we continued our exercises; we will continue our exercises," although they have been postponed and scaled back as the opening to the North was developing.
In February, Mattis ordered the postponement of the annual Foal Eagle exercises during the Winter Olympics in South Korea and the following Paralympics.
When Foal Eagle resumed, the normally two-month exercise was cut back to one month, and a U.S. aircraft carrier and its strike group, which had participated in the 2017 Foal Eagle exercise, did not take part.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at email@example.com.