WHITE HOUSE —
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis emphasized Tuesday the U.S. seeks a peaceful resolution to escalating tensions with North Korea, despite Pyongyang's claim that a tweet by President Donald Trump on Monday was tantamount to a declaration of war.
In New Delhi for talks with Indian officials about strengthening U.S.-India ties, Mattis said that while the U.S. military presence on the Korean Peninsula is necessary to deter North Korea's threats, it also supports diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict peacefully.
"And that is our goal, to solve this diplomatically, and I believe President Trump has been pretty clear on this issue," Mattis said, following a meeting with India's defense minister.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday also stressed that the U.S. will "continue to pursue our diplomatic efforts and hope that’s the way we’ll solve this".
On Monday, President Donald Trump commented on Twitter that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s regime “won't be around much longer” if the North carried out its recent threats.
Speaking to reporters near United Nations headquarters in New York, North Korean foreign minister Ri Yong Ho said, “given the fact that this comes from someone who is currently holding the seat of United States presidency, this is clearly a declaration of war."
The foreign minister added that the United Nations and the whole world should clearly remember that it was the U.S. who first declared war on our country."
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called Ri's characterization of the tweet "absurd."
"We've not declared war on North Korea," she said.
Bona fide crisis
Although North Korea has declared “war” many times in the past, now “we’ve entered a bona fide crisis,” Van Jackson, senior lecturer in international relations at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, tells VOA.
“Even if we’re not in a war right now, we seem to be doing everything in our power to make one happen by actions and statements that make deterrence more likely to fail,” says Jackson, a former director for Korea policy and a defense strategy advisor at the U.S. Defense Department.
Ri warned that his country might shoot down U.S. strategic bombers, even if they are not in North Korean airspace. According to South Korea's Yonhap news agency Tuesday, Lee Cheol-woo, the chief of the National Assembly's intelligence committee, said that Pyongyang was spotted readjusting the position of its warplanes and boosting its defensive capabilities along its east coast.
A fighter jet from North Korea in 1969 shot down an unarmed U.S. Navy reconnaissance plane, outside North Korean territorial airspace in the Sea of Japan, killing 30 sailors and one marine on board.
Speaking at a security conference on Monday, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster said the United States hopes to avoid war with North Korea “but what we can’t do is discount that possibility.”
The Army Lt. General added that the U.S. has thought through several different ways the problem with North Korea could be resolved and “some are uglier than others.”
McMaster, told the conference hosted by the Institute for the Study of War, however, “there’s not a precision strike that solves the problem.”
One peaceful solution, according to McMaster, would be for Pyongyang to give access to inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency. But any diplomatic negotiations, McMaster said, would “have to happen under conditions that are different from previous talks.” He said, however, he was not going to come up with a list of pre-conditions.
Some analysts see the path to talks still running through Beijing, which recently moved to cut banking ties between China and North Korea, as well as shutting off the supply of liquefied natural gas to the North Koreans and stopping imports of their textiles.
“I think that the Chinese are sending a signal to the North that they are skating on thin ice,” says T.J. Pempel, a political science professor at University of California, Berkeley.
The North Korean foreign minister threatened on Saturday that his country could conduct an atmospheric hydrogen bomb test over the Pacific Ocean.
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis responded Monday that if North Korea carried out its threat, "This would be a shocking display of irresponsibility toward global health, toward stability, toward non-proliferation."
U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer bombers from Guam escorted by F-16 fighter jets from a U.S. base in Japan on Saturday, flew in international airspace over waters east of North Korea.
The Pentagon says the show of force, meant to display some of the military options available to President Trump, was “the farthest north of the demilitarized zone any U.S. fighter or bomber aircraft have flown off North Korea’s coast in the 21st century.”
Pempel, at Berkeley, tells VOA he does not see the North Koreans, despite their amplified bellicose rhetoric, eager to go to war.
The North Koreans know, Pempel says, that a war “will ultimately lead to the destruction of the regime.”
Describing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as “Rocket Man” on a suicide mission, Trump used his maiden address to the U.N. General Assembly last Tuesday to warn Pyongyang that its current course could lead to "total destruction."
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, in an unusual signed statement, called Trump a "dotard" expressing "mentally deranged behavior.”
VOA's William Gallo contributed to this report from New Delhi.