President Donald Trump warns the U.S. is “locked and loaded,” while Kim Jong Un’s regime says it could launch missiles toward U.S. territory in the Pacific as soon as next week.
Behind the scenes, however, it’s not clear that a major military confrontation is imminent. Trump’s sharp rhetoric is belied by the business-as-usual routines of the U.S. Defense Department, which has been on stand-by for a belligerent act from North Korea for decades.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis continued with a previously scheduled trip on the West Coast. Speaking to reporters in California on Thursday, he said that while it’s his job to be ready with military options, the U.S. is pursuing diplomacy. He praised last weekend’s unanimous United Nations resolution tightening sanctions on North Korea and said the U.S. “is gaining diplomatic results, and I want to stay right there, right now.” A back-channel used earlier this year to try to free an American held by Pyongyang is still active, according to the Associated Press, though it isn’t clear those involved are discussing the current crisis.
Trump himself has sent some conflicting signals about what would trigger a U.S. military response. He suggested Friday morning that the U.S. isn’t looking to make a pre-emptive strike, saying on Twitter that the military stood ready to act “should North Korea act unwisely.” Speaking to reporters Friday afternoon in New Jersey, he said that if Kim utters another “overt threat” or hits U.S. territory or allies he will “regret it fast.”
The U.S. military says it is always prepared for conflict on a moment’s notice. The motto of U.S. Army’s Second Infantry Division, based in South Korea, is “ready to fight tonight.”
“There’s always some degree of readiness, but in the face of these indications and warnings that North Korea is communicating deliberately, we’re going to no doubt have an even higher condition of readiness,” said Thomas Karako, a senior fellow at Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
For military analysts, who discount public saber-rattling, there are several indicators to determine whether hostilities could be around the corner:
The USS Ronald Reagan, an aircraft carrier with more than 5,000 sailors that departed from its home port in Japan in May, actually returned to port this week “after a scheduled patrol to protect and defend the collective maritime interests of the U.S. and its…