Latest crisis on North Korea eases as both sides pull back — for now

Los Angeles Times

The latest nuclear crisis with North Korea appeared to ease Tuesday as Pyongyang and Washington sought to lower tension before their increasingly heated threats could spiral into war.

The question is what happens next in the world’s most dangerous hot spot.

U.S. and South Korean military forces are gearing up to start joint large-scale air, land and sea maneuvers Monday in South Korea. The annual exercises, dubbed Ulchi-Freedom Guardian, normally involve 17,500 U.S. troops and last for 10 days.

Kim Jong Un’s government has always denounced the joint exercises as a provocative ruse designed to hide a U.S. invasion. North Korea expressed outrage again Tuesday, but in the kind of furious rhetoric that in some ways signaled a return to what passes for normality.

If the U.S. carries out its “planned fire of power demonstration,” North Korea’s official news agency warned, North Korean “artillerymen will wring the windpipes of the Yankees and point daggers at their necks.”

In contrast, North Korea had unveiled a highly specific plan last week to fire four midrange ballistic missiles over several Japanese islands and into international waters about 20 miles off Guam, a U.S. territory in the Pacific that hosts two major U.S. military bases.

On Tuesday, the state news agency said Kim had toured the command post of the country’s strategic missile force, and then quoted him saying he would “watch a little more” before firing anything toward Guam, language that helped defuse the standoff.

China repeated its calls Tuesday for the U.S. and South Korea to suspend the military exercises as a show of good faith to give diplomatic breathing room to restart the multilateral talks with North Korea that collapsed in 2008.

The Trump administration has rejected that appeal in the past, and the Pentagon gave no indication Tuesday that it was changing its plans even as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson insisted he was looking for a way to restart negotiations.

"We continue to be interested in finding a way to get to a dialogue,” Tillerson said.

Frank Aum, a former Pentagon advisor on North Korea who contributes to 38 North, an analysis website that focuses on the country, said the crisis could reignite quickly because the “underlying sources of tension are still there.”

“There have always been issues between North Korea and the United States, but we’ve shown restraint,” he said. “The difference now is the war of words. Kim Jong Un will use bellicose language and President Trump dishes it right back.”

More important, Kim’s apparent decision not to fire a missile salvo toward Guam does not alleviate the larger U.S. concern: North Korea’s surprising progress in developing a long-range missile powerful enough to reach California, although not yet with a nuclear warhead.

Officials in China, South Korea, Japan and Russia — the countries most directly at risk if a major war breaks out with North Korea — all appealed for calm and a return to diplomacy.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in a phone call Tuesday that their governments needed to prevent a “confrontational spiral” near their borders, according to statements from the Chinese and Russian foreign ministries.

“The urgent task is to slam the brakes on the mutually provocative words and actions between North Korea and the United States,” the Chinese statement said. “Cool the tensions and prevent an ‘August crisis’ from breaking out.”

“Military adventures and threats of force [are] unacceptable,” the Russians added.

Trump said nothing about North Korea during a raucous 25-minute exchange with reporters at Trump Tower in New York. But he earlier had a 30-minute call with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to discuss the “growing threat” from North Korea, according to the White House.

Abe told reporters in Tokyo that the two leaders “frankly exchanged opinions on the current North Korean situation,” saying he appreciated Trump’s “commitment to the safety of its allies.”

But South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, appeared to rebuke Trump’s threats last week to unleash “fire and fury” on North Korea if it continued making threats. Moon said any military action on its territory requires South Korea’s permission.

“It’s only [South Korea] that can decide on military action on the Korean peninsula,” Moon said in a televised speech marking National Liberation Day, which celebrates the end of Japan’s colonial rule when World War II ended.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert would not say whether the United States needed South Korean permission to launch an attack. She emphasized the U.S. position that North Korea must give up its nuclear arsenal.

“The No. 1 thing you hear Secretary Tillerson talk about is goals and efforts to try to denuclearize the Korean peninsula, getting Kim Jong Un to give up those illegal weapons, getting him to stop with his destabilizing activities,” she told reporters at the State Department.

Few diplomats or arms control experts foresee Kim abandoning his nuclear arsenal — now estimated to include 20 to 60 bombs — and Tillerson has publicly said North Korea should stop testing ballistic missiles as a confidence-building measure to allow diplomacy to proceed.

The White House scored a diplomatic victory Aug. 5 when the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to impose new sanctions on North Korea in response to its latest ballistic missile tests.

On Monday, China, North Korea’s largest trading partner by far, announced it had banned imports of North Korean coal, iron and seafood to support the sanctions, a move Beijing had avoided in the past.

Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has visited Tokyo, Seoul, and Beijing this week in an effort that he said was aimed at finding a diplomatic, not a military, solution.

"We are seeking peaceful resolution to the crisis right now,” he told reporters in Beijing.

On Wednesday, Dunford is slated to visit China’s Northern Theater Command, which oversees Chinese military forces deployed along the 880-mile border with North Korea. Beijing fears that a collapse of North Korea’s economy could cause a flood of refugees to cross the border.

william.hennigan@latimes.com

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