As key U.S. officials played down the risk of an imminent war with North Korea and as South Korea’s president said resolving Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions must be done peacefully, tensions on the Korean peninsula eased slightly on Monday.
A spike in tensions in recent months has been spiked by concerns that North Korea is close to achieving its goal of putting the mainland United States within range of a nuclear weapon.
If North Korea acted unwisely after threatening last week to land missiles near the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam, the U.S. military was “locked and loaded”, U.S. President Donald Trump warned at the weekend.
“There must be no more war on the Korean peninsula. Whatever ups and downs we face, the North Korean nuclear situation must be resolved peacefully,” South Korean President Moon Jae-in told a regular meeting with senior aides and advisers.
“I am certain the United States will respond to the current situation calmly and responsibly in a stance that is equal to ours,” he said.
The risk of the rhetoric escalating into conflict was downplayed on Sunday by U.S. officials including National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster even while backing Trump’s tough talk.
“I think we’re not closer to war than a week ago, but we are closer to war than we were a decade ago,” McMaster told ABC News’ “This Week”.
Talk of being on the cusp of a nuclear war was overstating the risk, even though North Korean leader Kim Jong Un might well conduct another missile test, U.S. Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo said.
“I’ve seen no intelligence that would indicate that we’re in that place today,” Pompeo told “Fox News Sunday”.
As investors took heart from the less bellicose rhetoric, world stocks rallied on Monday.
However, with its official KCNA news agency saying “war cannot be blocked by any power if sparks fly due to a small, random incident that was unintentional”, North Korea reiterated its threats.
“Any second Korean War would have no choice but to spread into a nuclear war,” it said in a commentary on Monday.
South Korean Vice Defence Minister Suh Choo-suk did not see a big risk of the North engaging in actual military conflict while agreeing that North Korea was likely to continue provocations, including nuclear tests.
But doubts about North Korea’s claims about its military capability were highlighted again by Suh.
“Both the United States and South Korea do not believe North Korea has yet completely gained re-entry technology in material engineering terms,” Suh said in remarks televised on Sunday for a Korea Broadcasting System show.
After the 1950-53 Korean conflict ended with a truce, not a peace treaty, the United States and South Korea remain technically still at war with North Korea.
In tests that the North often conducts to coincide with important national dates, two intercontinental ballistic missile tests in July and two nuclear bomb tests last year were carried out by North Korea and tension in the region has risen ever since.
In what is a rare holiday celebrated by both the North and the South, Tuesday marks the anniversary of Japan’s expulsion from the Korean peninsula.
By often linking Beijing’s efforts to comments around U.S.-China trade. China strenuously rejects linking the two issues, Trump has urged China, the North’s main ally and trading partner, to do more to rein in its neighbor.
(Adapted from CNBC)