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Securing North Korean nuclear sites would require a ground invasion, Pentagon says

By: Dan Lamothe and Carol Morello, The Washington Post
November 4, 2017 Updated: November 4, 2017 at 8:51 pm
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This file photo taken on October 26, 2017 shows North Korean soldiers looking south at the truce village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone on the border between North and South Korea. (Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images)

The only way to locate and secure all of North Korea’s nuclear weapons sites “with complete certainty” is through an invasion of U.S. ground forces, and in the event of conflict, Pyongyang could use biological and chemical weapons, the Pentagon told lawmakers in a new, blunt assessment of what war on the Korean Peninsula might look like.

The Pentagon, in a letter to lawmakers, said that a full discussion of U.S. capabilities to “counter North Korea’s ability to respond with a nuclear weapon and to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons located in deeply buried, underground facilities” is best suited for a classified briefing.

The letter also said that Pentagon leaders “assess that North Korea may consider the use of biological weapons” and that the country “has a long-standing chemical weapons program with the capability to produce nerve, blister, blood and choking agents.”

The Pentagon repeated that a detailed discussion of how the United States would respond to the threat could not be discussed in public.

The letter was written by Rear Adm. Michael J. Dumont, the vice director of the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, in response to a request for information from two House members about “expected casualty assessments in a conflict with North Korea,” including for civilians and U.S. and allied forces in South Korea, Japan and Guam.

“A decision to attack or invade another country will have ramifications for our troops and taxpayers, as well as the region, for decades,” Ted Lieu (D-
Calif.) and Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) wrote to the Pentagon. “We have not heard detailed analysis of expected U.S. or allied force casualties, expected civilian casualties, what plans exist for the aftermath of a strike — including continuity of the South Korean Government.”

The Pentagon said that calculating “best- or worst-case casualty scenarios” was challenging and would depend on the “nature, intensity and duration” of a North Korean attack; how much warning civilians would have to get to the thousands of shelters in South Korea; and the ability of U.S. and South Korean forces to respond to North Korean artillery, rockets and ballistic missiles with their own retaliatory barrage and airstrikes.

The letter noted that Seoul, the South Korean capital, is a densely populated area with 25 million residents.

Any operation to pursue North Korean nuclear weapons would likely be spearheaded by U.S. Special Operations troops. Last year, President Barack Obama and then-Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter gave U.S. Special Operations Command a new, leading role coordinating the Pentagon’s effort to counter weapons of mass destruction. SOCOM did not receive any new legal authorities for the mission but gained influence in how the military responds to such threats.

Elite U.S. forces have long trained to respond in the case of a so-called “loose nuke” in the hands of terrorists. But senior officials said SOCOM is increasingly focused on North Korea.

Dumont said the military backs the current U.S. strategy on North Korea, which is led by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and focuses on ratcheting up economic and diplomatic pressure as the primary effort to get North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to stop developing nuclear weapons. Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., have emphasized that during trips to Seoul this year.

In contrast, President Trump, who goes unmentioned in the Pentagon letter, has taunted Kim as “Rocket Man” and expressed frustration with diplomatic efforts, hinting that he is considering preemptive military force.

“I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” Trump tweeted on Oct. 1, adding, “Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!”

On Oct. 7, Trump added in additional tweets that North Korea had “made fools” of U.S. negotiators. “Sorry, but only one thing will work!” he said.

Mattis and other Pentagon leaders have often cited the grave threat faced by Seoul, but the military much less frequently draws attention to its plans for an underground hunt for nuclear weapons.

Air Force Col. Patrick Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, said that Dumont and other Pentagon officials had no additional comment about the letter.

A senior U.S. military official in South Korea, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing operations, said that while the 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea maintain a high degree of readiness, he “has to believe” that North Korea does not want a war, given all of the nations aligned against it.

Read the full story at The Washington Post.

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