US commander not confident North Korea will refrain from nuclear assault

Spencer Ackerman in New York

The US admiral in charge of a potential conflict with North Korea has said his goal is to bring Kim Jong-un “to his senses, not to his knees”.

Tensions between the US and North Korea are white-hot ahead of an anticipated sixth nuclear test from Pyongyang and its accelerating long-range missile development. Donald Trump has invited the entire US Senate to the White House on Wednesday afternoon for a classified briefing on the situation.

Adm Harry Harris, the commander of US Pacific Command (Pacom), sounded dire notes before a congressional panel on Wednesday, testifying that he did not have confidence that North Korea would refrain from “something precipitous” should it succeed in miniaturizing a nuclear weapon to mount on a ballistic missile.

While Harris did not provide any timetable for reaching an “inflection point” in North Korean nuclear capabilities, he suggested that the North’s accelerating missile tests indicated that Pyongyang will at some point be able to launch a nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile at the United States unless stopped by an external force, diplomatically or militarily.

“Just as Thomas Edison is believed to have failed 1,000 times before successfully inventing the light bulb, so, too, Kim Jong-un will keep trying. One of these days soon, he will succeed,” Harris told the House armed services committee.

Harris indicated a preference for a sizeable show of military force in order to deter North Korea from launching a devastating assault, to include sending the guided-missile submarine USS Michigan to South Korea’s port city of Busan, overflying the Korean peninsula with B-1 and B-52 bombers, and ordering the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier strike group to the waters near Korea.

Harris accepted responsibility for “confusion” stemming from the Vinson deployment, which Trump and the US navy highlighted last week even though the carrier group was still thousands of miles from the peninsula. The Vinson, Harris said, is now in the Philippine Sea, placing its weapons and aircraft within “striking range” of North Korea.

“The best thing that we can do, as Pacom, the best thing I can do, is ensure we have credible combat power all the time to face whatever threat comes out of North Korea,” Harris said.

With Trump accelerating airstrikes against Islamic State, launching missile strikes at Syria and using a massive bomb in Afghanistan, members of the panel pressed Harris on the likelihood of a potential pre-emptive strike against North Korea. The US military is considering shooting down a North Korean missile test in an escalation against Pyongyang that would fall short of war.

Harris acknowledged that possible reprisals stemming from such a strike would place at risk the lives of millions of Koreans in Seoul – as well as the 24,000 US troops in South Korea – from North Korean artillery.

“I would say what we’re faced with is that on one hand and a lot more Koreans and Japanese and Americans dying if North Korea achieves its nuclear aims and does what [Kim Jong-un] has said it’s going to do,” Harris said.

Against the threat of one of the densest concentrations of artillery pieces on earth, aimed at one of the most densely populated areas on earth, Harris said vaguely that the US could “affect North Korea’s military calculus” depending on the sort of pre-emptive strike taken.

When the committee’s top Democrat, Adam Smith of Washington, suggested that Kim might take a step short of full-scale war, Harris disagreed.

“I don’t share your confidence that North Korea is not going to attack either South Korea or Japan or the United States or our territories or our states or parts of the United States once they have the capability. I won’t say that they will but I don’t share your confidence that they won’t,” he said.

Harris warned that “follow-on” measures from any strike would tax US capabilities to sustain a military campaign. He urged Congress to add ballistic-missile interceptors to installations in Alaska and California, and to “study” placing interceptors in Hawaii while immediately bolstering defensive radars there.

Backing Trump, Harris said China had substantial leverage against North Korea, a treaty ally of Beijing and a primary trade partner, while calling it “preposterous” that China was pressuring South Korean companies over the looming placement of a powerful US terminal-phase missile defense system known as Thaad. The admiral said the recent summit between Trump and China’s president, Xi Jinping, reduced the risk of any military conflict escalating to include China.

“It’s early days, but China seems to be helpful here,” Harris said.