SEOUL — The United States has agreed not to take any military action against North Korea without first getting South Korea’s approval, President Moon Jae-in said Thursday as he marked 100 days in office.
Backing up the president’s assertion, Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in Beijing that there was “no question” that South Korea would be consulted before any possible military action was taken on the Korean Peninsula.
“South Korea is an ally and everything we do in the region is in the context of our alliance,” Dunford told reporters traveling with him on a trip that has taken him to Seoul and then to Beijing, where he met with President Xi Jinping on Thursday. Dunford will later travel to Tokyo.
The risk to South Korea has restrained successive American administrations striking North Korea to take out its nuclear and missile facilities, even as its capability has improved to the point where it now poses a threat to the U.S. mainland.
But a strike on North Korea would likely cause Pyongyang to unleash conventional artillery at Seoul, just over the border. Ten million people live in the South Korean capital but as many as 25 million people — half the population — live in the greater Seoul region and within North Korean artillery range.
Although the U.S. and South Korean militaries would respond quickly, the initial volleys could cause significant damage and panic.
Moon, the liberal president elected in May, ruled out the prospect of another war on the Korean Peninsula, even as he warned Pyongyang that it was rapidly approaching a “red line” with its missile program.
“I would define the red line as completing the development of an intercontinental ballistic missile and being able to weaponized it with a nuclear warhead,” Moon said. “In that respect, North Korea is nearing the red line.”
North Korea last month, for the first time, launched two intercontinental ballistic missiles with the theoretical capability to reach deep into the United States mainland, at least as far as Denver and possibly to New York.
But even as Kim Jong Un’s regime makes technical progress and delivers shrill threats, the North Korean problem must be solved through peaceful means, Moon said.
“I say this with confidence: There will be no war on the Korean Peninsula ever again,” Moon told reporters on his 100th day in office, adding that President Trump had agreed to discuss any action with his administration.
The U.S. Embassy in Seoul had no immediate response, instead referring requests for comment to the White House.
“We can’t afford to lose all that we’ve built from the ashes of the Korean War. I will prevent another war at all cost,” Moon said at the presidential Blue House, which lies just 30 miles south of the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas.
Analysts said that, for all the recent bluster, there seemed to be little dispute that military action would be catastrophic.
“It struck me that Steve Bannon said more or less the same thing, but in more colorful language,” said Christopher Green, senior adviser on the Korean Peninsula at the International Crisis Group.
Bannon, Trump’s chief strategic, was quoted Wednesday as saying that “there’s no military solution” to the North Korean problem. “Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that 10 million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons … there’s no military solution here, they got us,” Bannon said in an interview with American Prospect magazine.
His words echo statements by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, both of whom have spoken about the problems involved in any military action on the Korean Peninsula.
“So behind the scenes, there seems to be a fair amount of consensus,” Green said.
In Beijing, Gen. Dunford agreed Thursday that a military solution to the North Korean problem “absolutely horrific.”
Fan Changlong, a vice chairman of China's powerful Central Military Commission, told his American counterpart that military means should not be an option in solving the Korean Peninsula issues.
“China insists that consultation through dialogue is the only effective way to solve the problems on the peninsula, and military means cannot be an option,” Fan said when meeting with Dunford. “At the moment, all parties concerned should maintain restraint, and avoid words and actions that would intensify the tension of the situation on the Korean Peninsula.”
Still, Dunford said that Trump had told American military leaders “to develop credible viable military options and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
But for all the tempered words of his top officials, Trump has been issuing tough threats to North Korea. He warned last week that the American military is “locked and loaded” and that the Kim regime would feel the United States military’s “fire and fury” if it attacked.
Kim appeared to back away from action this week, with state media reporting that he would “watch a little longer” before deciding whether to go ahead with a plan to launch missiles toward the American territory of Guam.
Trump tweeted that Kim a had “made a very wise and well reasoned decision.”
Still, even amid calls for a combination of diplomacy and pressure to dissuade North Korea, some conservatives in South Korea are calling for the U.S. to redeploy tactical nuclear weapons to the southern half of the peninsula.
The main South Korean opposition Liberty Korea Party, the reincarnation of the conservative party that had been led by disgraced former president Park Geun-hye, this week added bringing American nuclear weapons back to its party platform.
The United States withdrew its nuclear weapons from South Korea in 1991, when the two Koreas signed an agreement to make the peninsula nuclear-free.
“The joint declaration for a nuclear-free peninsula has already been scrapped by the North, and I believe it has become virtually meaningless for us to hold fast to it,” Chung Woo-taik, the conservative party’s floor leader, said during its meeting Wednesday.
Amid the current tensions, these calls have been gaining ground. A survey conducted by polling company Embrain this week found that two-thirds of respondents wanted South Korea to have tactical nuclear weapons and nuclear-powered submarines.
“The time is ripe for us to hold in-depth discussions over the redeployment of the U.S. military's tactical nukes to cope with the dangers of the North's nuclear and missile programs and deter any conflict on the Korean Peninsula,” Chung said, according to the Yonhap News Agency.
However, analysts say the idea has little chance of becoming reality as long as Moon’s liberal government is in power.
Luna Lin in Beijing contributed to this report.