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As Trump and North Korea trade threats, the Pentagon’s top general calls for restraint

Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Sept. 26. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)

The U.S. military’s top general told lawmakers Tuesday that diplomacy continues to lead all efforts to compel Kim Jong Un to abandon his nuclear ambitions, and that despite the North Korean leader’s escalating threat to attack the United States, there is no indication Pyongyang has mobilized the forces to do so.

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. assured Congress that his work on North Korea, including expanded communication with his Chinese counterparts, aligns first with that of the State Department and United Nations.

“The military dimension today is in full support of the economic and diplomatic pressure campaign the secretary of state is leading in North Korea,” Dunford told the Senate Armed Services Committee during a hearing to reconfirm his appointment as the military’s top officer, a two-year commitment.

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Dunford’s focus on non-military solutions stands out against the backdrop of President Trump’s increasingly heated statements — both at the U.N. and on Twitter — in which he has taunted the North Korean leader and alluded to the regime’s total destruction.

On Tuesday, Trump sought to find a more even tone, saying military action was not the preferred course, and that it would be “devastating” to North Korea should it come to that. This a day after Pyongyang’s foreign minister, Ri Yong Ho, called Trump’s rhetoric a declaration of war and vowed to shoot down U.S. warplanes flying near the Korean Peninsula.

Public entanglements have concerned analysts and Congress alike, with lawmakers suggesting that all the verbal sparring may increase the chances that routine military drills may be misinterpreted and met by preemptive action.

“We’re informed by the North Korean posture at a given point in time, or informed by the need to avoid miscalculation and an inadvertent engagement,” Dunford said.

But he conceded that the Pentagon does not maintain lines of communication with the North Korean military, telling lawmakers that U.S. military leaders must rely on the recently established channels with China, along with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s steady efforts to blunt North Korea’s increasingly sophisticated ballistic missile development program.

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Russia has further complicated the dynamic, embracing a “spoiler role” targeting U.S. efforts across the world, Dunford said. In North Korea, that has included clandestine fuel shipments and transportation between the two countries to circumvent sanctions.

And although political rhetoric has escalated in recent days and weeks, Dunford said North Korea’s military posture is unchanged, a signal that Pyongyang has not mobilized to conduct any specific operation.

The Pentagon sharply increased intelligence efforts to monitor the North Korean regime’s military activity and weapons development at the beginning of last year, Dunford said, after other priorities —  such as the Islamic State war in Syria and Iraq — siphoned off limited reconnaissance and surveillance resources.

“Certainly, over the last 18 months, we have increased our collection against North Korea,” he added.

It is unclear which of North Korea’s evolving capabilities came into focus once U.S. intelligence analysis picked up in early 2016. Pyongyang claimed to have detonated an atomic bomb that January, its first nuclear test in three years, and launched a satellite into space the next month. Those events, coupled with growing ballistic missile tests, could have renewed concern about how secret weapons programs had matured.

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Dunford told the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2015 that Russia, China and North Korea, in that order, posed the greatest threats to U.S. national security, calling Russia’s then-recent incursion into Ukraine and significant military exercises along its western border “nothing short of alarming.”

Recent events have scrambled that tier, at least in priorities set by the White House and Defense Department.

Dunford said the sense of urgency points to North Korea being the immediate threat, with Russia as the most sophisticated and long-term menace as China, now a looming regional threat, is poised to become the top concern around 2025.

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