Both Koreas, US open door to diplomacy in nuclear crisis

Updated August 15, 2017 - 1:37 pm

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea’s military on Tuesday presented leader Kim Jong Un with plans to launch missiles into waters near Guam and “wring the windpipes of the Yankees,” even as both Koreas and the United States signaled their willingness to avert a deepening crisis, with each suggesting a path toward negotiations.

The tentative interest in diplomacy follows unusually combative threats between President Donald Trump and North Korea amid worries Pyongyang is nearing its long-sought goal of being able to send a nuclear missile to the U.S. mainland. Next week’s start of U.S.-South Korean military exercises that enrage the North each year could make diplomacy even more difficult.

During an inspection of the North Korean army’s Strategic Forces, which handles the missile program, Kim praised the military for drawing up a “close and careful plan” and said he would watch the “foolish and stupid conduct of the Yankees” a little more before deciding whether to order the missile test, the state-run Korean Central News Agency said. Kim appeared in photos sitting at a table with a large map marked by a straight line between what appeared to be northeastern North Korea and Guam, and passing over Japan — apparently showing the missiles’ flight route.

The missile plans were previously announced. Kim said North Korea would conduct the launches if the “Yankees persist in their extremely dangerous reckless actions on the Korean Peninsula and its vicinity,” warning the United States to “think reasonably and judge properly” to avoid shaming itself, the news agency said.

The Trump administration had no immediate comments on Kim’s declaration.

“We continue to be interested in trying to find a way to get to dialogue, but that’s up to him,” U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters in Washington on Tuesday.

Lobbing missiles toward Guam, a major U.S. military hub in the Pacific, would be deeply provocative from the U.S. perspective. A miscalculation on either side could lead to military confrontation. On Monday, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis said Washington would take out any such missile seen to be heading for American soil, warning that such a North Korean attack could mean war.

Kim’s conditional tone, however, hinted the friction could ease if the U.S. offered a gesture that Pyongyang sees as a step back from “extremely dangerous reckless actions.”

That could refer to the U.S.-South Korean military drills set to begin Aug. 21, which the North claims are rehearsals for invasion. It also could mean the B-1B bombers that the U.S. occasionally flies over the Korean Peninsula as a show of force.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, meanwhile, a liberal who favors diplomacy, urged North Korea to stop provocations and to commit to talks over its nuclear weapons program.

Moon, in a televised speech Tuesday on the anniversary of World War II’s end and the Korean Peninsula’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule, said Seoul and Washington agree that the nuclear standoff should “absolutely be solved peacefully.” He said no U.S. military action on the Korean Peninsula could be taken without Seoul’s consent.

Moon said the North could spur talks by stopping nuclear and missile tests.

“Our government will put everything on the line to prevent another war on the Korean Peninsula,” Moon said. “Regardless of whatever twist and turns we could experience, the North Korean nuclear program should absolutely be solved peacefully, and the (South Korean) government and the U.S. government don’t have a different position on this.”

The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, on Monday met with senior South Korean military and political officials and the local media, seeking to ease anxiety while showing his willingness to back Trump’s warnings if need be.

The U.S. wants to peacefully resolve tensions with North Korea, but Washington is also ready to use the “full range” of its military capabilities, Dunford said. He is also visiting Japan and China after a week in which Trump declared the U.S. military “locked and loaded” and said he was ready to unleash “fire and fury” if North Korea continued to threaten the United States.

North Korea’s military said last week it would finalize the plan to fire four ballistic missiles near Guam, which is about 3,200 kilometers (2,000 miles) from Pyongyang. It would be a test of the Hwasong-12, a new missile the country flight-tested for the first time in May. The liquid-fuel missile is designed to be fired from road mobile launchers and has been described by North Korea as built for attacking Alaska and Hawaii.

The North followed the May launch with two flight tests of its Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile last month. Analysts said that a wide swath of the continental United States, including Los Angeles and Chicago, could be within reach of those missiles, once they’re perfected.

The North’s latest report said Kim ordered his military to be prepared to launch the missiles toward Guam at any time. Kim said if the “planned fire of power demonstration” is carried out because of U.S. recklessness, it will be “the most delightful historic moment when the Hwasong artillerymen will wring the windpipes of the Yankees and point daggers at their necks.”

Even with North Korea and the Trump administration exchanging tough talk, back-channel diplomatic contacts between the countries have continued, The Associated Press reported Friday. People familiar with the contacts who spoke on condition of anonymity say discussions have addressed deteriorating relations and three Americans detained in North Korea.

A foreign ministry spokesman for the North on Tuesday denied the country is currently discussing the detainees with Washington.

North Korea also is angry about new United Nations sanctions over its nuclear and missile development.

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