U.S.-Korean war hype rings hollow as verbal jousting continues

Worries about a potential military conflict continue to rise on the Korean Peninsula as Pyongyang declares it is ready to conduct another nuclear weapons test at any time and the USS Carl Vinson strike group steams toward waters off North Korea.

U.S. officials continue to assert that “all options are on the table,” which presumably includes a pre-emptive strike. In response, in an interview Friday, North Korean Vice Minister Han Song Ryol said “we will go to war if they choose.”

In public, officials in Tokyo have welcomed Washington’s tough stance. But in private, reactions are mixed.

Japanese officials affirm that attacking North Korea is easier said than done, and the senior officials do not appear to seriously believe Washington will soon launch a military strike against Pyongyang. At least for now.

“The situation is not like that,” a senior Japanese government official said Friday when asked whether Tokyo needs to start preparing to evacuate Japanese residents from South Korea.

Tokyo has asked Washington not to attack the North without prior consultation, partly because the estimated 57,000 Japanese there will need to be evacuated should war ever break out, government sources said.

Washington has largely agreed to that request, the sources said.

As of Saturday, Japan had not issued any warnings to nationals in or traveling to South Korea, although “numerous” Japanese had contacted the Foreign Ministry to ask how serious the security situation on the peninsula really is, they said.

Meanwhile, NBC news has reported that the U.S. is prepared to launch a pre-emptive strike against North Korea should Washington become convinced it is about to hold a nuclear test.

But a high-ranking Japanese official said he had not heard about the decision, although Tokyo is staying in close communication with Washington.

When asked if the report was “over-hyped,” the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, answered in the affirmative.

“We know the situation is tense. But you need to calmly watch and analyze the situation at a time like this,” the official said.

Attacking North Korea is a horrific option because it would likely trigger a second Korean War and result in the deaths of large numbers of U.S. and South Korean troops and civilians and probably drag Japan into the conflict.

Seoul is not far from the heavily fortified border with North Korea, and Pyongyang is ready to destroy Seoul — home to about 10 million people at any time.

In 1994, when dealing with the first Korean nuclear crisis, U.S. President Bill Clinton seriously considered using the military option on North Korea.

But he shied away from the idea after reviewing the stunning results of computer simulations carried out by the U.S. military and the Department of Defense. The computers projected 30,000 American and 450,000 South Korean military casualties from a major conflict.

Another Pentagon estimate showed that a second Korean War would kill or wound 1 million civilians and devastate the South’s economy to the tune of at least $1 trillion, according to “Going Critical,” a 2004 book co-authored by Joel Wit, Daniel Poneman and Robert Gallucci.

In the 2000s, the administration of former U.S. President George W. Bush continued negotiating with Pyongyang. According to Bush’s memoir, Bush warned Chinese President Jiang Zemin in February 2003 that he “would have to consider a military strike against North Korea” if China and the U.S. could not solve the North Korean problem diplomatically.

But in fact, according to Bush’s secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, in her 2011 memoir “No Higher Honor,” he never seriously considered the military option, given the amount of damage Seoul would suffer if war broke out on the peninsula again.

“The military option against Pyongyang was not a good one; it was fraught with unintended consequences and the near-certainty of significant damage to Seoul,” she wrote.

“Kim Jong-il maintains missile batteries whose projectiles can reach South Korea’s capital city in a very short period of time … President Bush and his advisers did not seriously consider military action,” she wrote.

Indeed, the U.S. now may be just repeating the same rhetoric the Bush administration used all those years ago.

In a January 2003 meeting, Bush warned Jiang that if North Korea’s nuclear weapons program continued, he “would not be able to stop Japan” from developing its own nuclear weapons.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson offered a similar warning about a nuclear-armed Japan during a media interview on March 18.

On Friday, The Associated Press quoted an anonymous U.S. military official as saying the U.S. does not intend to use military force against North Korea in response to either a nuclear test or a missile launch.

However, plans could change in the unlikely event that a North Korean missile targets South Korean, Japanese or U.S. territory, the official was also quoted as saying.

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