President Donald Trump meets with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, right, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in before the Northeast Asia Security dinner at the US Consulate General in Hamburg, Germany, July 6, 2017.
President Donald Trump meets with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, right, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in before the Northeast Asia Security dinner at the US Consulate General in Hamburg, Germany, July 6, 2017.

WASHINGTON - A pre-emptive military strike may be among the “pretty severe things” President Donald Trump says he is considering for North Korea, but it's a step so fraught with risk that it ranks as among the unlikeliest options.

Even a so-called surgical strike aimed at the North's partially hidden nuclear and missile force is unlikely to destroy the arsenal or stop its leader, Kim Jong Un, from swiftly retaliating with long-range artillery that could kill stunning numbers in South Korea within minutes.

An all-out conflict could then ensue. And while Trump's Pentagon chief, Jim Mattis, says the U.S. would prevail, he believes it would be “a catastrophic war.”

Trump met with the leaders of South Korea and Japan in Germany on Friday, and in a joint statement, they condemned the North's “unprecedented launch,” calling it a major escalation and a global threat that demands “maximum pressure” on Pyongyang.

Soldiers gather in Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang
Soldiers gather in Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang, North Korea, July 6, 2017, to celebrate the test launch of North Korea's first intercontinental ballistic missile two days earlier.

'Mugger's mentality'

Firing back, North Korea said its July 4 missile test-launch was “the final gate to completing the state nuclear force.” A lengthy statement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs also said its intercontinental ballistic missile is meant to overcome U.S. hostility, which it likened to a “mugger's mentality,” and enable the North to “strike the very heart of the U.S. at any given time.”

In Poland on Thursday, Trump said the time has arrived to confront North Korea.

“I don't like to talk about what I have planned, but I have some pretty severe things that we're thinking about,” the president said. “That doesn't mean we're going to do them.”

Trump didn't mention which “severe” options he is weighing following North Korea's July 4 test-launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile. The administration has been reviewing its overall North Korea policy for months, having declared earlier attempts at “strategic patience” with the North to have failed. The administration has spoken about starving North Korea of cash for its nuclear program and getting other countries to add diplomatic and economic pressure.

But Trump and his aides have not have ruled out the possibility of war with an adversary that is openly defying U.N. Security Council resolutions and threatening the United States.

“It's a shame that they're behaving this way,” Trump said, “but they are behaving in a very, very dangerous manner and something will have to be done about it.”

FILE - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reacts with
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reacts with scientists and technicians of the DPRK Academy of Defence Science after the test-launch of the intercontinental ballistic missile Hwasong-14 in this undated photo released by North Korea.

A new reality

Trump was referring to North Korea's test-launch Tuesday of an unarmed ballistic missile that for the first time demonstrated the range needed to reach U.S. soil. The ICBM was launched on a lofted trajectory so that it fell short of Japan. U.S. analysts calculated that if it is launched on a standard attack trajectory, the missile could reach Alaska. With further testing, they say, North Korea will achieve even longer ranges.

The missile launch created a new reality for the U.S. and its South Korean and Japanese allies, which already are in range of the North's missiles. With a population of more than 20 million, Seoul is in easy range of North Korea's massive array of artillery guns north of the Demilitarized Zone that forms a buffer between North and South. Japan could also be a target. Beyond the nuclear threat, the North also is believed to have chemical and biological weapons.

U.S. Defence Minister James N. Mattis talks at a p
U.S. Defence Minister James N. Mattis talks at a press conference before the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Marshall Plan at the George C. Marshall Center in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, June 28, 2017.

Cost of war hard to imagine

The U.S. has about 28,000 troops in South Korea, and Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says about 300,000 U.S. citizens are in Seoul alone. Dunford predicted June 12 that war casualties would be heavy — “and many of those casualties will be in the first three, five, seven days of the war where all those people in the greater Seoul area (are) exposed to the North Korean threat that we will not be able to mitigate initially.”

Mattis told a House committee last month that if it came to a fight, the U.S. and its allies would prevail, but at a cost that is difficult to imagine.

“It will be a war more serious in terms of human suffering than anything we've seen since 1953,” he said, referring to the final year of the Korean War. Then, U.S. forces siding with South Korea fought North Korea to a stalemate. It was an era when the North had no nuclear or chemical weapons.

Trump has said he will not allow North Korea to achieve what it calls its ultimate objective:  a nuclear-armed missile capable of reaching the United States. Although the North has now shown it can reach U.S. soil, it probably isn't capable yet of arming such a missile with a nuclear warhead. If allowed to stay on its current course, analysts say, the North probably will reach its goal within a few years.

US to pursue diplomacy

In an impromptu encounter at the Pentagon on Thursday, Mattis told reporters that this week's missile launch didn't threaten the U.S. He said it doesn't change the administration's determination to pursue diplomacy to resolve the nuclear threat, but he suggested North Korea might eventually push too hard.

“Any effort by North Korea to start a war would lead to severe consequences” for that country, he said.

Mattis said the North's intercontinental missile capability doesn't “in itself bring us closer to war.”

As of Thursday, there were no outward signs of U.S. moves to put more air, ground or naval forces in South Korea.