As Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, the Trump administration is in the midst of “a pressurization campaign” led by Tillerson and contingent on Chinese cooperation. It involves “applying economic and diplomatic means primarily to force the North Koreans” to give up their nuclear weapons, and making clear that Trump has “military options” if the campaign doesn’t work. “We’re at the phase now where implementation of the sanctions is going to determine whether or not we have a peaceful solution to denuclearization on the [Korean] peninsula,” Dunford said. The administration appears to be taking the economic dimension of this effort more seriously than the diplomatic effort; Trump has yet to fill the positions of U.S. ambassador to South Korea or assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. But whatever the case, the U.S. military is playing a supporting role at the moment.
If war was imminent, we would likely see something we haven’t yet: an evacuation of Americans—civilians, military family members, non-essential personnel—from South Korea, according to Abe Denmark, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia under Barack Obama. “It’s impossible to hide because it’s over 100,000 people,” he said, and it “would signal that things are getting really dangerous.”
“If you’re actually going to go to war, you have to do a lot of things—primarily in terms of logistics and communications and mobilizing reserve forces … and you don’t see any of those on the [U.S.-South Korean forces] side to the south of the [Korean Demilitarized Zone] nor to the north of it,” said Dennis Blair, a former director of national intelligence and commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific. In 1994, for instance, when Blair was commanding a battle group in the western Pacific and the Clinton administration nearly decided to strike a North Korean nuclear reactor, Blair’s deployment was diverted from the Persian Gulf to Korea, Patriot anti-missile batteries flowed into the region, and a range of military units were put on alert to carry out war plans against North Korea.
“On the North Korean side, I can’t talk in as much detail, but it’s the logical things you would do if you have a fairly large North Korean army, an infantry-heavy army, and you don’t keep all of the soldiers in readiness all of the time, you don’t keep all of the supplies brought up, the ammunition broken out, the wartime command-and-control modes set up,” Blair added. U.S. officials “monitor very closely those indicators and none of our leaders has spoken publicly saying that those indicators have been activated.”
Dunford, in fact, told senators this week that North Korea’s military activities have not matched the government’s escalating rhetoric. The United States hasn’t detected a “change in the posture of North Korean forces” as a result of the “charged political environment,” he testified. A South Korean lawmaker who heads the legislature’s intelligence committee claims that the Kim regime is seeking to avoid accidental conflict by ordering soldiers to report up the chain of command before taking any military action. North Korean propaganda may loudly and confidently condemn Trump as the “trouble-maker of humanity,” but North Korean officials are quietly struggling to square Trump’s fiery tweets with the sober statements of his advisers, and reportedly reaching out to American Korea experts in search of clarity.