WASHINGTON - Despite speculation that the United States might launch a pre-emptive strike against North Korea if it conducted another nuclear test, the chance it could happen appears slim, former U.S. officials say.
While the Trump administration insists it does not want to divulge what it will do to counter the regime's nuclear threat, it is unlikely that the U.S. "will do anything unless it sees what North Korea does," said David Gompert, former acting director of national intelligence in the Obama administration.
"Because to strike first, to strike pre-emptively, would more or less guarantee an exchange of hostilities," Gompert told VOA, "whereas by waiting to see what happens, [there] is always a chance that North Korea will do nothing."
North Korea has conducted five nuclear tests so far, and it recently declared that it was ready to carry out another test.
James Winnefeld, a retired U.S. Navy admiral who served as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Barack Obama, said President Donald Trump's words didn't mean action, and that his tough talk was designed to keep the pressure on North Korea.
"I think we have to put this in the context of the president's negotiating style," Winnefeld said. "He threatens the use of force when in fact he doesn't have, in my opinion, the intent to use force just for nuclear tests by North Korea."
Amid escalating tensions and heated rhetoric on North Korea, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence told reporters in Seoul this week, "North Korea would do well not to test [Trump's] resolve or the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region," and that "all options are on the table," including the use of military force to counter the North Korean regime's growing aggression.
"We will defeat any attack and we will meet any use of conventional or nuclear weapons with an overwhelming and effective response," Pence said.
Testing vs. provocations
Dennis Blair, who was Obama's director of national intelligence and also served as the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific region, advised against responding to a North Korean nuclear test — part of a long-term program to develop missiles and nuclear weapons — with military action, which he said should be carried out only in the event of North Korean attacks on the U.S. or its allies.
"There's a difference between missile and nuclear tests, which are really developing capability within Korea over the long term, and provocations like artillery shelling of the offshore islands, which they've done a couple of years ago, [or] the sinking of a [South Korean] destroyer," said Blair, referring to the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island and the sinking of the naval vessel Cheonan in 2010. He said he thought such provocations "should be met with strong military responses."
Sam Locklear, who led the U.S. Pacific Command from 2012 to 2015, said it was unclear whether a possibly imminent nuclear test by Pyongyang would be met with U.S. military action. But one thing is certain, he said: "The time is running out for Kim Jong Un and his regime to either behave or to suffer the consequences."
"This administration has particularly pointed out and said, 'You better start behaving here because we are done waiting on you; we are done being patient and we are not going to sit by,' " Locklear said in an interview with VOA.
Although the former military and intelligence officials said they were skeptical that the U.S. would respond to North Korea's nuclear test with a pre-emptive strike, they said such a response could cause tremendous damage within U.S.-allied countries in the region, particularly South Korea.
Bombardment of Seoul
Gompert, who also served as principal deputy director of national intelligence, said a pre-emptive strike by the U.S. would result in the use of conventional military force by North Korea against the South — for instance, a very large-scale artillery bombardment of Seoul — that "could be exceedingly dangerous."
"If the United States was going to respond with force to a North Korean nuclear test, it might not be able to limit its attacks to North Korean nuclear sites. It might also have to contemplate attacking a much wider range of military targets," Gompert said.
Some believe a U.S. pre-emptive strike could be the trigger for an all-out nuclear war.
"If there's a war on the peninsula, that could end up going nuclear very quickly," Winnefeld said. "I don't think anybody wants that."
On Tuesday, Trump said during an interview with TV station WTMJ in Wisconsin, "You always have to be concerned," when he was asked whether Americans should worry about nuclear war with North Korea.
This report originated with VOA's Korean service.