The Pentagon played down the news that the head of US Forces Korea has decided to stay in South Korea rather than coming to Washington to testify on Capitol Hill this week as he had been scheduled to do.
Senior US military officials called the move by Gen. James Thurman “a prudent measure,” made in consultation with South Korea and in light of recent tensions on the peninsula. And this prudence – along with several other recent events – signals a quiet but concerted campaign on the part of senior Pentagon officials to noticeably ratchet down tensions with North Korea.
The Pentagon, for example, decided to delay an intercontinental ballistic missile test that had been set for this week – even though it had nothing to do with the North Korea crisis.
The test at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California “might be misconstrued by some as suggesting that we were intending to exacerbate the current crisis with North Korea,” a senior defense official told Agence France Press (AFP).
While the Minuteman 3 test was “long planned and was never associated with North Korea to begin with,” a defense official told the Associated Press that “given recent tensions on the Korean peninsula, it’s prudent and wise to take steps that avoid any misperception or chance of manipulation, so the test has been postponed.”
These were sentiments that had been expressed by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who said that he did not want to add fuel to the “complicated, combustible situation” there.
The Department of Defense responded robustly to the threats of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un last month, first by sending B-52 bombers, which have nuclear capability, on a low-flying sweep of the region.
The Air Force then flew two stealth B-2 bombers from their home station in Missouri to the Korean peninsula, where they dropped bombs on a South Korean island as part of routine joint military exercises.
Pentagon officials insisted these measures were designed to bolster the confidence of US allies in the region, rather than to send any particular message to Mr. Kim.
That said, senior defense officials say that the exercises will be a quieter affair next year, with a bit less bluster on the part of the United States.
Indeed, a senior defense official told AFP it will likely “go a little less public with our exercise activities” next year.