U.S. military officials say South Korean media took out of context a comment made Tuesday at a Seoul news conference by the new head of the U.S. Pacific Command, Navy Admiral Samuel Locklear III.
“Numerous reports following the event have mischaracterized his comments regarding U.S. response to possible future provocation of a nuclear test by North Korea, speculating that the U.S. is considering specific responses,” according to a release issued by the U.S. military in South Korea.
During a news conference with South Korean reporters from the Ministry of National Defense press corps, Locklear was asked whether the United States would again consider “surgical strikes” against North Korea if it is evident the country is preparing to conduct a third nuclear test. Such strikes reportedly were considered at the time of a nuclear test in 1994.
The release quotes Locklear as saying, “I don't think it would be appropriate to comment on how we would pursue any further military operations, but I can tell you that, with
the alliance, that we are continually looking at all options."
Shortly after the briefing, South Korean media - including the widely viewed cable network YTN, the semi-official Yonhap news agency and newspaper web sites - quoted the four-star admiral differently.
“If North Korea tries a third nuclear test, we'll consider all possible measures, including precision strikes on North Korea's nuclear test site,” was how MBN television reported what Locklear said.
Other South Korean media also said the head of the U.S. Pacific Command had indicated surgical or precision strikes are an option.
Senior analyst Daniel Pinkston of the International Crisis Group expresses concern such misquotes give North Korea a pretext for military strikes. The misquotes “play right into their narrative,” he said.
There was no immediate reaction from North Korea, which typically takes two or more days to react to comments about the country by South Korean or U.S. officials.
Pinkston, based in Seoul, predicts Pyongyang, through its official news agency, will certainly react and likely blast Locklear as a “warmonger” or use similar belligerent language typical of its frequent verbal attacks on the United States and South Korea.
Locklear is making his first visit to South Korea since assuming command of USPACOM on March 9. His comment about North Korea comes four days after that country's defiance of U.N. resolutions with a failed space launch.
USPACOM is one of six unified combatant commands of the United States armed forces and its area of responsibility encompasses about half of the Earth's surface.
International news organizations had requested to attend the admiral's briefing at the Combined Forces Command at the Yongsan U.S. Army Garrison, but received no response from USPACOM explaining why they were excluded.
The Seoul Foreign Correspondents' Club, which represents more than 100 international news organizations, had also requested that a representative pool of international reporters attend the news conference, coming as it did at a critical time on the Korean peninsula.
The U.S. military-affiliated American Forces Network and Stars and Strips newspaper did have reporters present at the briefing, but made no reference to the controversial quote.
Monday, the United Nations Security Council “strongly condemned” the launch and ordered tightened sanctions on the reclusive and impoverished country.
The council said the launch of the rocket, which disintegrated over the Yellow Sea shortly after blast off, was a "serious violation" of U.N. resolutions 1718 and 1874.
South Korea and the United States contend North Korea was attempting to test fire a Taepodong-2 ballistic missile.
Locklear called North Korea's launch “a fairly catastrophic failure” that caused him to “question their competency in advanced missile technology,” according to Stars and Stripes.
It was the third failed launch by North Korea and particularly embarrassing because the reclusive country had allowed foreign reporters to tour the new Sohae launch site just days before the launch.
North Korea's two previous attempted launches were soon followed by nuclear tests, which led to sanctions being imposed on Pyongyang. Japanese media quote diplomatic sources saying North Korea has rescinded an invitation for International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to visit its nuclear facilities. The reports say the action was taken in retaliation for a U.S. decision to withhold food aid because of the attempted rocket launch.
South Korean government sources last week distributed to international news organizations satellite imagery taken April 1 indicating fresh tunnels being dug near the town of Punngye-ri, where North Korea carried out its two previous nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.
Additional reporting by Youmi Kim in Seoul.