Pentagon yawns at North Korea’s nuclear threat

The way it goes, North Korea makes a bellicose, over-the-top threat to the U.S. and the Western world, and then the White House and world leaders issue strongly-worded responses, or maybe tack on some sanctions. Usually, by contrast the Pentagon coolly lays low on the sidelines, saying there’s no reason to do more of anything ...

KCNA VIA KNS/AFP/Getty Images
KCNA VIA KNS/AFP/Getty Images
KCNA VIA KNS/AFP/Getty Images

The way it goes, North Korea makes a bellicose, over-the-top threat to the U.S. and the Western world, and then the White House and world leaders issue strongly-worded responses, or maybe tack on some sanctions. Usually, by contrast the Pentagon coolly lays low on the sidelines, saying there’s no reason to do more of anything because the U.S. military has North Korea well-watched and covered anyway.

But what about when Kim Jong-Un threatens the world with outright nuclear war? That’s a new one, peninsula watchers are warning. According to current and former DOD officials, however, the answer is not as exciting as one might think.

“We are always ready to go to war on the Korean Peninsula within a matter of hours,” said one former Defense Department official, who spoke to the E-Ring anonymously to discuss sensitive information.

The way it goes, North Korea makes a bellicose, over-the-top threat to the U.S. and the Western world, and then the White House and world leaders issue strongly-worded responses, or maybe tack on some sanctions. Usually, by contrast the Pentagon coolly lays low on the sidelines, saying there’s no reason to do more of anything because the U.S. military has North Korea well-watched and covered anyway.

But what about when Kim Jong-Un threatens the world with outright nuclear war? That’s a new one, peninsula watchers are warning. According to current and former DOD officials, however, the answer is not as exciting as one might think.

“We are always ready to go to war on the Korean Peninsula within a matter of hours,” said one former Defense Department official, who spoke to the E-Ring anonymously to discuss sensitive information.

It turns out, that’s the boring truth.

“No change — routinely have AEGIS ships throughout the [area of responsibility] — have not altered threat level and repositioned ships,” said Lt. Cmdr. Chris Servello, a Navy spokesman at the Pentagon, in an email.

That’s pretty much the stock answer from most military commands following any North Korean bluster, including the purposeful mention of AEGIS ships. Those are cruisers and destroyers equipped with the AEGIS Combat System, aka missile defense. The ships are the mobile, sea-based leg of the U.S.’s defense against ballistic missiles, which is how North Korea likely would be delivering a nuclear warhead outside of its borders to nearby targets.

Inside the Pentagon, the former DOD official said typically following a North Korean threat there is a lot of “intelligence churn” to see if any movements on the ground match the rhetoric. But the U.S. military does not have to move big weapons, ships, aircraft, nor change alert levels.

“There’s a difference between somebody saying we’re going to nuke you, and somebody saying we’re going to nuke you, and then our satellites noticing missiles on the move,” the official said.

“The thing to keep in mind with the North Korea situation is … we are always postured as if the balloon could go up within a matter of minutes. If we actually needed to be moving big heavy things around, that would actually indicate we had some serious problems with being postured correctly.”

What the military does depends on what the intelligence community actually sees.

“It depends on what has actually happened. We don’t just jump up and down because somebody says something,” the official said. Intelligence eyes are watching to determine “how the rhetoric is actually feeding activity, or whether the rhetoric is intended for domestic political consumption.”

The intelligence then fuels the response in Washington, which includes a wide inter-agency effort that has been war-gamed for years.

“Is there a playbook that we could pull off the shelf that provides all sorts of options? Yes. Is it automatic: we see A and we’re going to B? No, nor should it be,” the official explained.

Whatever the U.S. military response may be, it is always intentional. North Korea cannot see far asea naval movements, the official said, but China can. One option in the playbook is to move U.S. military assets in a way that the Chinese can see, knowing they will relay U.S. movements to the North Koreans.

Further from Washington, Pyongyang’s threat did conjure up a return volley of fighting words from various U.S. military commands.

Pacific Command (PACOM), based out of Hawaii, issued the most bellicose statement, pledging to “remain steadfast in our regional security commitments and stand ready to defend U.S. territory, our allies and our national interests.”

“We are consulting closely with our international allies and partners on next steps,” the command said in a statement provided to the E-Ring. It also said the combined forces of the U.S. and its allies can “effectively assess any North Korean provocative acts such as missile launches and nuclear testing efforts. The U.S. military closely monitors threats to international security and has the capability to respond if and when directed by the President.”

PACOM called on North Korea “to refrain from additional provocative actions that would violate its international obligations and run counter to its commitments….that might increase tensions in the region…. [and] to refrain from future missile launches, nuclear testing, and to comply fully” with United Nations Security Council resolutions.

From Strategic Command (STRATCOM), which controls the U.S. nuclear arsenal, comes this statement from Capt. Jeff Bender, chief spokesman: “U.S. Strategic Command remains steadfast in our security commitments and stands ready to defend U.S. territory, our allies, and our national interests. We will continue to monitor the situation very closely with U. S. Pacific Command partners."

Kevin Baron is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy, covering defense and military issues in Washington. He is also vice president of the Pentagon Press Association. Baron previously was a national security staff writer for National Journal, covering the "business of war." Prior to that, Baron worked in the resident daily Pentagon press corps as a reporter/photographer for Stars and Stripes. For three years with Stripes, Baron covered the building and traveled overseas extensively with the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, covering official visits to Afghanistan and Iraq, the Middle East and Europe, China, Japan and South Korea, in more than a dozen countries. From 2004 to 2009, Baron was the Boston Globe Washington bureau's investigative projects reporter, covering defense, international affairs, lobbying and other issues. Before that, he muckraked at the Center for Public Integrity. Baron has reported on assignment from Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and the South Pacific. He was won two Polk Awards, among other honors. He has a B.A. in international studies from the University of Richmond and M.A. in media and public affairs from George Washington University. Originally from Orlando, Fla., Baron has lived in the Washington area since 1998 and currently resides in Northern Virginia with his wife, three sons, and the family dog, The Edge. Twitter: @FPBaron

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