Days after President Donald Trump referred to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as “rocket man” and members of his administration made it clear military options against Pyongyang remained on the table, Defense Secretary James Mattis sought to calm growing fears of American intervention on the Korean Peninsula by arguing that the United States had military options at its disposal that wouldn’t necessarily spell disaster for allies in the region.
When pressed on Monday about escalating rhetoric from the White House regarding Kim’s nuclear ambitions, Mattis was asked during a press briefing at the Pentagon if there were any military strategies for dealing with North Korea that would protect Seoul, the South Korean metropolis home to 25 million people. In a terse comment that surprised international relations experts, Mattis hinted that there were, although he refrained from elaborating.
“Yes there are. But I will not go into details,” he said. When asked if they might include the use of lethal force, he replied: “I don’t want to go into that.”
If such military options do exist, they are largely new to analysts studying the Korean Peninsula.
“I don’t know what plan would not put Seoul at risk,” said Melissa Hanham, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. “The bottom line is: North Korea does have the artillery. It’s vague enough that I want to give [Mattis] the benefit of the doubt, but I cannot conceive of a way where you would militarily engage with North Korea and not put Seoul at risk.”
Seoul’s geographic proximity to North Korea has been a deterrent for U.S. military intervention on the Korean peninsula. Pyongyang has thousands of traditional arms ― rocket launchers and cannons ― buried in the mountains just north of the Demilitarized Zone that could rain down upon Seoul’s skyscrapers if Kim felt threatened. The weaponry, built up in the decades since the end of the Korean War, is heavily fortified and would be almost impossible to take out in one fell swoop.
Jonathan Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution specializing in Korea and China, was puzzled by Mattis’ statements, arguing that the defense secretary is usually a “voice of real reason” in the Trump administration.
“He’s a very sober, careful guy,” Pollack said. “Frankly, I haven’t got a clue about what he’s talking about … He knows what the terrain looks like, he knows what the…