Dunford: North Korea has not changed military posture despite rhetoric

Francis Rivera

The United States’ highest ranking general said Tuesday that North Korea has not changed its military posture despite heated rhetoric in the last few days.

“While the political space is clearly very charged right now, we haven’t seen a change in the posture of North Korean forces and we watch that very closely,” Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Tuesday. “What we haven’t seen is military activity that would be reflective of the charged political environment.”

Dunford was testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee at his confirmation hearing to serve a second term as Joint Chiefs chairman.

Tension between the United States and North Korea, which has run hot for months, ratcheted up even further over the last few days as President Trump and Pyongyang engage in a new round of epithets.

At his United Nations speech last week, Trump belittled North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as a suicidal “Rocket Man” and threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea if necessary.

Kim responded by calling Trump a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard.” In his own U.N. speech, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho said Trump’s remarks make North Korea’s firing on the United States “inevitable.”

Trump responded to Ri’s speech by tweeting, “If he echoes thoughts of Little Rocket Man, they won’t be around much longer!”

The back and forth intensified Monday with Ri saying Trump’s comments amount to a “declaration of war” that gives North Korea justification to shoot down U.S. bombers.{mosads}

“Since the U.S. declared war on our country we will have every right to make countermeasures, including the right to shoot down the United States strategic bombers even when they’re not yet inside the airspace border of our country,” Ri said.

In a show of force Saturday, B-1B bombers and F-15C fighter jets flew in international airspace off the east coast of North Korea, the farthest north of the demilitarized zone the U.S. military has gone this century.

A South Korean lawmaker said Tuesday that Pyongyang has bolstered its defenses along North Korea’s east coast.

On Tuesday, Dunford stressed that North Korea will soon have the capability to strike the United States with an intercontinental ballistic missile.

“Whether it’s three months or six months or eighteen months, it’s soon,” he said, emphasizing the last word. “We ought to conduct ourselves as though it is just a matter of time and matter of very short time before North Korea has that capability.”

North Korea still has some technical hurdles, he said, including a re-entry vehicle and stabilizing the missiles during flight. But he described those as engineering issues that will be overcome.

“We should assume today that North Korea has that capability and has the will to use that capability,” he said.

Asked by Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) about the risk of accidental escalation stemming from the heated rhetoric, Dunford said the military takes the risk of miscalculation into account when planning operations such as this weekend’s bomber flight.

“I can tell you that I personally, the secretary of Defense and [Pacific Command leader] Adm. [Harry] Harris are looking at all of our posture and managing risk on a day-to-day basis formed by the need to avoid miscalculation,” Dunford said. “The recent operations that we conducted, I can assure you that even as I was on the road, Secretary [James] Mattis and I probably personally invested several hours each in reviewing those, to manage those, without going into classified information here, to look at all of our capabilities, look at all of their capabilities, look at the timing, look at the probabilities.”

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