On Thursday, NBC News reported that “multiple senior U.S. intelligence officials” were saying the United States was prepared to launch a “pre-emptive strike with conventional weapons against North Korea, should officials become convinced that North Korea is about to follow through with a nuclear weapons test.”
The report was quickly denounced as wildly inaccurate by Trump administration officials, but a North Korean official said on Friday that his country was prepared to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against U.S. forces if they carry out “reckless military maneuvers.”
The NBC report quoted unnamed intelligence officials who said the U.S. has positioned two destroyers with Tomahawk missiles near North Korea, within range of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site where a detonation may be imminent. Heavy bombers in Guam and the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier strike group were also said to be available for operations against North Korea, plus ground troops stationed in South Korea and preparations for cyber warfare.
Trump administration officials quickly lashed out at the NBC News report, calling it “wildly wrong,” “crazy,” and “extremely dangerous.”
Some of the less energetic criticism allowed that the facts provided by NBC were true enough and no great secret – the redirection of the Vinson to Korean waters has been public knowledge for days, and Guam certainly hasn’t moved further away from North Korea recently – but the tenor of the report was alarmist and dangerously provocative to the volatile North Korean regime. Officials pushing back against the report insisted there was no active plan to launch pre-emptive strikes against North Korea.
As for the Navy’s Tomahawk missiles, they can hit targets a thousand miles away. It would not be terribly difficult to put the Punggye-ri test site within missile range. The Vinson battle group includes two Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers and a Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser, according to a report at The Diplomat, so it’s not shocking news that Tomahawks are coming within range of North Korea.
Interestingly, The Diplomat also reports that an unknown number of Japanese destroyers are accompanying the Vinson to conduct maritime drills. Included among the equipment they might be drilling with is the Aegis anti-ballistic missile system.
North Korea’s threat of pre-emptive nuclear pre-retaliation came on Friday from Vice Foreign Minister Han Song Ryol, who said, “If the U.S. comes with reckless military maneuvers then we will confront it with the DPRK’s pre-emptive strike. We’ve got a powerful nuclear deterrent already in our hands, and we certainly will not keep our arms crossed in the face of a U.S. pre-emptive strike.”
Han was more incensed by President Trump’s Twitter feed than media reports of possible American action. “Trump is always making provocations with his aggressive words,” he said. “It’s not the DPRK but the U.S. and Trump that makes trouble.” He was riffing on a Trump tweet that said North Korea was “looking for trouble.”
“Whatever comes from the U.S., we will cope with it. We are fully prepared to handle it,” Han declared.
“The US introduces into the Korean peninsula, the world’s biggest hotspot, huge nuclear strategic assets, seriously threatening peace and security of the peninsula and pushing the situation there to the brink of a war. This has created a dangerous situation in which a thermo-nuclear war may break out any moment,” said a statement from the North Korean Foreign Ministry’s Institute for Disarmament and Peace.
The NBC report noted that South Korea’s government remains confident it would be consulted before any actions are taken against North Korea.
“U.S. officials, mindful of such concerns here, repeatedly reaffirmed that (the U.S.) will closely discuss with South Korea its North Korea-related measures. In fact, the U.S. is working to reassure us that it will not, just in case that we might hold such concerns,” Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se told a special meeting of parliament in Seoul, as quoted by NBC.