Congress, Pentagon ramp up North Korea pressure

President Obama’s top military adviser on Tuesday issued a thinly veiled warning to North Korea, while some lawmakers said the communist country must be put back on the U.S. terrorism list.

The salvos from the Pentagon and Congress come as North Korea appears to be preparing to test some of its ballistic missiles amid global concerns of its nuclear weapon capabilities.

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During a breakfast sponsored by The Hill on Tuesday, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested that North Korea should not rest easy because the U.S. is fighting two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: “I certainly would not want anyone to misread the fact that we are stretched that we are unable to do something else, because we clearly are.”

He said, “While we have a very stretched military, particularly our ground forces, I also rest very comfortably that I have a very strong Reserve, a very strong Air Force [and] a very strong Navy. I’ve got a lot of reserve capacity.”

Mullen made his comments on the same day that several senators said North Korea should be put back on the U.S. list of countries supporting terrorism. President Bush removed North Korea from that list on Oct. 11, 2008, as part of the U.S. negotiations on the communist country’s nuclear program.

“Any concessions that were made to them previously in exchange for pledges of better behavior should be rescinded,” Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told The Hill, indicating that the Obama administration should look at putting North Korea back on the list.

“Dealing with the North Koreans is very aggravating, but at least they are not suicidal,” Bayh said, adding that the U.S. should not give into “belligerent behavior.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) stressed that North Korea, which was dubbed by Bush as one of three countries in the “axis of evil,” should be placed “back on the terror list” in order to “make sure they’re not able to export their technology or their equipment.”

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) said, “It would be a grim mistake to just respond to these provocations by saying, ‘Let’s just sit down and talk to North Korea.’ I think they have to feel some pain.”

But Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) urged caution.

“That list should only be for states that support terrorism,” he said. “Otherwise, they shouldn’t be on it. We shouldn’t use that list to put pressure on people for other reasons.”

North Korea's aggression prompted eight Republican senators on Tuesday to call on the Obama administration to immediately re-list the country on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. The letter , which was sent to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, was signed by Sens. Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), Tom Coburn (Okla.), John Cornyn (Texas), Jim DeMint (S.C.), John Ensign (Nev.), Mike Enzi (Wyo.), Jeff Sessions (Ala.) and David Vitter (La.).

“The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has neither ended its sponsorship of terror activities nor moved in the direction intended when President Bush de-listed the DPRK,” the senators wrote.

“In fact, the DPRK has done just the opposite.”

In 2008, Obama supported the decision to remove North Korea from the list, which is issued by the State Department. At the time, Obama called Bush administration’s decision “an appropriate response.”

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McCain, who was squaring off with Obama for the White House, expressed skepticism when North Korea was removed from the terrorist list last fall, saying the Bush administration should “avoid reaching for agreement for its own sake.”

Meanwhile, spy satellites have captured images that indicate that North Korea is preparing to conduct its second long-range ballistic missile test since April, following last month’s detonation of a nuclear device and several short-range missile tests. North Korea launched a long-range missile over Japan in April, sparking an international outcry.

North Korea envoy Stephen Bosworth and Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg are reportedly traveling to Asia for talks on how to respond to North Korea’s missile tests.

The senior officials will talk with leaders of South Korea, China, Japan and Russia. All are original members of the Six-Party Talks, put in place to attempt to forge a peaceful resolution to the security concerns raised by North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

The Six-Party Talks have been stalled since the United Nations Security Council condemned North Korea in April for a failed missile test. Following the condemnation, North Korea expelled U.N. inspectors from the country.

This week’s talks will center on developing a unified approach to North Korea’s actions, and will include discussion of military posturing should diplomatic sanctions fail, according to the Pentagon’s news service.

Several reports indicate that Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s frail leader, has apparently chosen his third son, still in his 20s, as his heir. The speculation over Kim’s successor has led some analysts to believe that North Korea’s recent nuclear test and its growing belligerent posture had more to do with Kim’s efforts to bolster his standing among his people and enforce a dynastic succession.

However, South Korean and U.S. forces have been placed on a higher surveillance alert level after North Korea threatened military action following its nuclear test earlier this week. The last time the joint forces raised the surveillance alert was after North Korea’s last nuclear test in 2006, according to South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.

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The Army’s chief of staff, Gen. George Casey, said last week that his service would be well-prepared to fight in a conventional war against North Korea, should it ever come to that.

“We have a combat-seasoned force,” he said in a discussion hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Casey, however, offered a caveat: It would take the Army longer to shift gears from the wars it is already fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Casey offered a timeline of up to 90 days to “train our folks who are preparing to go to Iraq and Afghanistan to go someplace else.”

He stressed that the Air Force and Navy, already with a good footprint in the region, would be able to stage a quick response.

Mullen echoed those remarks on Tuesday: “We routinely in the Pentagon plan for contingencies and recognize that these issues are very serious issues, and not just with North Korea, but in the region and potentially globally with someone who seems to continue to aspire to develop nuclear weapons.”

Some lawmakers have stressed that the U.S. has to put pressure on China, which has exported food and energy supplies to neighboring North Korea.

“China has the leverage on North Korea, and we’re going to have to figure out how to get the Chinese to help apply the appropriate degree of persuasion,” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said.

“We have to make China understand this is a key issue in our relations with them,” added McCain.