Through weeks of high tension on the Korean Peninsula, a clearer picture is beginning to emerge of North Korea’s young dictator, whom top US military officials describe as “very different” from his father.
Those differences are in turn driving the Pentagon to brace for a “heightened state of readiness” – a period of tension that may last for some time, according to the nation’s top military officer.
“We’re not into cyclical provocations any longer – we’re in a period of prolonged provocation,” says Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey.
In Beijing this week, Dempsey is expected to press his Chinese counterparts to more robustly encourage North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to ratchet down his threats and think carefully about his next steps.
“China’s got some clear interest in stability on their southern flank,” Dempsey says. “We have to have that conversation, and I’m looking forward to it.”
Pyongyang has signaled in recent days that it may be willing to come to the negotiating table if the US military, say, gives up annual joint military exercises with South Korea, among other conditions.
That will not be happening, Dempsey said on the heels of a meeting with Gen. James Thurman, commander of US forces in South Korea. It was a meeting originally slated to take place in Washington earlier this month but was delayed so that Thurman could stay on the peninsula in an effort to calm tensions in the region.
“It’s our intention to continue” to do the exercises, Dempsey says, “the idea being that our sustained presence here is assuring to our allies.”
How US policy will in turn drive Mr. Kim’s actions remains tough to predict, officials acknowledge.
“We have a picture of a leader who is very different from both his father and his grandfather,” Dempsey says. “He is, I think, less predictable.”
This apparent fact has, in turn, spurred senior US officials to endeavor to ratchet down rhetoric in the region. “Everyone I talk to on our side is eager for us to avoid war,” Dempsey says.
That said, he adds, “It won’t surprise you to know that from our military perspective, the best way to avoid war is to prepare for it.”
Last week came suggestions in the form of a New York Times op-ed by University of Texas professor of history Jeremi Suri that such preparation might include drawing up plans for a preemptive strike on North Korean missile sites.
These calls came on the heels of a Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report that North Korea has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles.
Such intelligence “is useful,” Dempsey says, while pointing out that there remain differences of opinion on the matter within the intelligence community.
The DIA report “assesses with moderate confidence” that the North has miniaturized nuclear weapons, but it also predicts that their “reliability will be low.”
Even as Kim whips his country into wartime footing, however, Dempsey says that he is not currently considering preemptive strikes on North Korea to destroy any missiles.
“There’s no end to the advice I get from the military experts,” he says. “But that’s not a piece of advice I’m taking to heart at this time.”