With Washington and Pyongyang lobbing verbal volleys and Twitter threats, Defense Secretary James Mattis on Tuesday attempted to defuse growing tensions between the U.S. and North Korea even as a U.S. carrier strike group arrived off the tense Korean peninsula this week.
Mr. Mattis, a former Marine general making his first public briefing at the Pentagon, spoke just hours after President Trump said on Twitter that North Korea “is looking for trouble” and said the U.S. was prepared to deal with the North’s threat with or without help from China, the North’s main patron and economic lifeline.
North Korea, who some analysts say could be preparing yet another provocative ballistic missile test, responded in kind.
The regime fired back, saying North Korea “will hold the U.S. wholly accountable for the catastrophic consequences to be entailed by its outrageous actions,” in a statement by a foreign ministry spokesman published by state-run Korean Central News Agency. Pyongyang “stands ready to react to any mode of war desired by the U.S.,” the spokesman added.
But Mr. Mattis emphasized Tuesday afternoon that the deployment of the U.S.S. Carl Vinson strike group to the international waters in the western Pacific Ocean was part of routine naval operations, and not a show of force aimed at the regime in Pyongyang.
“There’s not a specific demand signal or specific reason why we’re sending her up there,” Mr. Mattis told reporters during a briefing at the Pentagon on Tuesday.
The Carl Vinson strike group is “stationed there in the western Pacific for a reason. She operates freely up and down the Pacific, and she’s just on her way up there because that’s where we thought it was most prudent to have her at this time,” Mr. Mattis said, alongside U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Joseph Votel.
But the strike group’s shift toward the Korean peninsula has been seen as an unmistakable signal ahead of an anticipated new round of nuclear tests by Pyongyang. The tests are expected to take place ahead of the 105th birthday of North Korean founding father Kim Il-sung, set for Saturday according to recent reports.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has typically conducted tests of mid to long-range ballistic missiles in commemoration of such events. The White House has ramped up its sharp rhetoric of the North Korean regime in recent days.
National Security Adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster said President Trump has requested “a full range of options to remove the [nuclear] threat to the American people and to our allies,” posed by North Korea. Pyongyang has graduated from “a rogue regime that is now a nuclear-capable regime,” Gen. McMaster told Fox News on Sunday.
But on Monday, Mr. Mattis chalked up the recent publicity generated by the strike group’s movements to the department’s bureaucracy. The Carl Vinson “was originally headed in one direction for an exercise, and we canceled our role in that exercise, and that’s what became public,” he said, referring to a joint naval exercise off the coast of Australia.
“We had to explain why she wasn’t in that exercise,” he added.
Mr. Trump pressed visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping last week for help in restraining North Korea, but it was not clear how much progress he made. Beijing has grown increasingly annoyed by Mr. Kim’s provocations, but fears a complete collapse of the North would spawn a massive refugee crisis and strengthen South Korea, a staunch U.S. ally.
Mr. Trump “would welcome President Xi weighing in on this a little bit more,” Mr. Spicer said.
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