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Dunford says NKorea military posture unchanged amid tension

WASHINGTON (AP) — The nation’s top military officer said Tuesday he’s not seen any shifts in North Korea’s military posture despite the reclusive nation’s threats to shoot down U.S. warplanes amid the “charged political environment” between Washington and Pyongyang.

Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “we haven’t seen military activity that would be reflective of the charged political environment that we’re seeing.”

Dunford’s remarks come amid escalating rhetoric between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Trump tweeted that North Korea’s leadership “won’t be around much longer.” North’s top diplomat, Ri Yong Ho, argued Trump’s tweet gives the reclusive nation the right to shoot down U.S. military aircraft, like the strategic bombers Washington flew close to the border between the two Koreas over the weekend.

Dunford completes his first term at the end of September. The committee was holding his confirmation hearing with just days to spare to give him another tour of duty. Trump in May nominated Dunford to serve a second two-year term as chairman. He originally was picked for the job by President Barack Obama. Most chairmen serve two, two-year terms.

The White House said Monday it’s not seeking to overthrow North Korea’s government and called Pyongyang’s assertion absurd that Trump’s comment amounted to a declaration of war.

Still, the fiery rhetoric carrying over from a week of threatening exchanges at the U.N. General Assembly only further stoked concerns the U.S. and North Korea would lurch into an open military conflict. The Korean War ended seven decades ago without a formal peace treaty and tensions related to the North’s nuclear advances have escalated for months.

Trump tweeted Saturday: “Just heard Foreign Minister of North Korea speak at U.N. If he echoes thoughts of Little Rocket Man, they won’t be around much longer!” Trump also used “rocket man” for Kim in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly last week.

While Trump’s comments may be read as an implicit threat to eliminate Kim, administration officials said Washington hadn’t changed its policy and the U.S. isn’t seeking regime change in Pyongyang.

“We have not declared war on North Korea. Frankly the suggestion of that is absurd,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters. “It’s never appropriate for a country to shoot down another country’s aircraft when it’s over international waters.”

Dunford, a highly respected, combat-hardened commander, took over as chairman on Oct. 1, 2015, following just one year as commandant of the Marine Corps. Before that assignment, he led the Afghanistan war coalition during a key transitional period from February 2013 to August 2014.

He oversaw the ongoing drawdown of U.S. troops during his 18 months in Afghanistan as well as the shift to the Afghan military leading combat operations, the tumultuous Afghan elections that dragged on, and efforts to reach an agreement on the U.S. military’s future presence in the country.

During his fast-tracked military career that began in 1977, Dunford jumped from a one-star general to four stars in about three years. He’s steadfastly steered clear of politics and urged all U.S. troops to do the same.

Dunford, 61, is a Boston native who holds master’s degrees in government from Georgetown University and international relations from Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

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Follow Richard Lardner on Twitter at http://twitter.com/rplardner

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