The Trump administration is poised to pull the trigger on billions of dollars in military sales to U.S. allies in the Pacific in response to the growing nuclear standoff with North Korea — including possibly offering offensive weaponry to long-pacifist Japan.
Even before President Trump tweeted Tuesday about plans to allow “a substantially increased amount of highly sophisticated” equipment for Japan and South Korea, the White House sent a request to the State Department for an assessment of how best to expedite the authorization of such sales as a way to combat Pyongyang’s recent missile and nuclear tests, sources say.
“We have internal direction on this that came before the tweet,” said one of the sources, who told The Washington Times on the condition of anonymity that assets such as the Tomahawk cruise missiles capable of preemptively targeting North Korean ballistic launch sites could be authorized.
The State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs orchestrates such authorizations.
A State Department spokesman, who spoke on background with The Times, confirmed that officials within the bureau are scrambling to work “with our South Korean and Japanese partners to identify what would best assist their needs as directed by the president.”
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Monday that his government, which has long pushed to reform Japan’s constitution toward allowing the use of offensive force for the first time since World War II, would seek to bolster its missile defenses through the purchase of U.S.-developed equipment such as the Aegis Ashore missile interceptor.
North Korea’s test Sunday of a powerful hydrogen bomb that Pyongyang claimed was compact enough to be mounted on an intercontinental ballistic missile continued to ripple around the globe, with the aftershocks even felt on Wall Street. The Dow Jones industrial average dropped 234 points — more than 1 percent — in a slide that analysts said was tied in part to soaring U.S.-North Korean tensions.
Mr. Trump and his aides have used increasingly aggressive rhetoric and threats of economic sanctions as the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has conducted a string of provocative military tests.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged both sides to pull back and warned Tuesday that “confrontational rhetoric may lead to unintended consequences.” He stressed that the nuclear crisis must be solved diplomatically.
But the North showed no signs of being intimidated. A top North Korean diplomat said Tuesday that his country is ready to send “more gift packages” to the United States.
Han Tae-song, ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, said Sunday’s nuclear test was intended as a message to the Trump administration. The U.S., he told a disarmament conference, “will receive more ‘gift packages’ as long as it relies on reckless provocations and futile attempts to put pressure on [North Korea].”
China and Russia have pressed both sides to back down, and Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that U.S. hopes for even tougher economic sanctions on Pyongyang will not help resolve the crisis.
While condemning the North’s latest nuclear test, Mr. Putin told reporters Tuesday on a visit to China, “Whipping up military hysteria makes absolutely no sense in this situation. This is a road to nowhere.”
Growing arms race
While accelerated U.S. arms sales in the region could exacerbate the tensions, the move could be a boon for U.S. defense firms that stand to profit dramatically from any deals. But U.S. sources cautioned that the delivery of weaponry will take months if not longer, and Mr. Trump has yet to appoint a permanent head for the main State Department office that works with the Pentagon on foreign arms sales.
The department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs — Foggy Bottom’s principal link to the Pentagon — has been headed since May by Acting Assistant Secretary of State Tina S. Kaidanow, a career diplomat who’s held a variety of posts in recent years, including serving as Ambassador-at-Large and Coordinator for Counterterrorism.
A significant portion of existing Japanese and South Korean weapons arsenals, meanwhile, already consists of American-supplied systems and equipment, geared toward defending against attack from North Korea.
Japan received $4.6 billion in commercial defense exports from the U.S. last year alone, with South Korea bolstering its armed forces with American arms to the tune of nearly $2.3 billion that same year.
In November 2014, the Pentagon and State Department sought congressional approval for a $1.4 billion sale of the PAC-3 Patriot Advanced Capability missile defense system to South Korea. The Lockheed Martin-built system stands alongside other systems, including the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense weapon and the ship-based Aegis missile interceptor program, as one of the most formidable missile defense systems fielded by U.S. forces.
Under the Abe government, Tokyo has been mulling constitutional change to allow its armed forces to acquire offensive weapons such as the Tomahawk cruise missile. Current Japanese law limits Tokyo from obtaining such weapons.
Proponents of the changes argue that the Tomahawk, a ship-based cruise missile designed to eliminate ground-based targets within a range of 800 to 1,300 nautical miles, is the perfect weapon to launch a pre-emptive strike on North Korean ballistic missile sites across the East Sea/Sea of Japan.
U.S.-South Korean pact
South Korea is also seeking to bolster its own missile defense systems, but changes to a long-standing bilateral pact with the U.S. that limits the types of ballistic missiles South Korea can field would have to be made, said Hyun Cho, South Korean second vice minister of foreign affairs, speaking in Washington on Tuesday. The restrictions cap South Korean ballistic missiles to carry a nuclear payload no larger than 1,100 pounds and limits the weapon’s range to less than 500 miles.
The threat posed by North Korea to the peninsula and region overall “is rapidly becoming a threat that is too hard to bear,” he told a conference organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Obviously, North Korea is to blame for this situation,” Mr. Cho said, although he added that Washington has been taking its eye off the North Korea crisis because of domestic distractions, such as fights over health care and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Washington “seems at times to have been distracted by other issues” when attempting to address North Korea’s repeated provocations in the Pacific and tamp town tensions among U.S. allies in the region, he said. “At this eleventh hour, we must double our cooperative efforts” to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula and “we cannot afford such [distractions].”
Mr. Trump chastised Seoul on social media during the hours after North Korea’s hydrogen bomb test, saying the country’s deterrence strategy toward North Korea is ineffective and has done nothing to curb Pyongyang’s nuclear agenda.
Mr. Cho rejected such assertions, saying “the only solution for North Korea” is political and economic sanctions against the rogue nation. He warned that White House rhetoric could boil over into outright conflict. “We cannot accept war as an option,” he said. “We should be careful this does not escalate.”
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who came into office this year promising expanded dialogue and a more conciliatory posture toward the North, called for the “strongest possible response” to Pyongyang’s latest provocation.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.
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