Tensions on the Korean peninsula eased slightly on Monday as key U.S. officials played down the risk of an imminent war with North Korea.
Concern that North Korea is close to achieving its goal of putting the mainland United States within range of a nuclear weapon has underpinned a spike in tensions in recent months.
U.S. President Donald Trump warned at the weekend that the U.S. military was “locked and loaded” if North Korea acted unwisely after threatening last week to land missiles near the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam.
While backing Trump’s tough talk, U.S. officials including National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster played down the risk on Sunday of the rhetoric escalating into conflict.
“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”.
U.S. Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo said North Korean leader Kim Jong Un might well conduct another missile test but talk of being on the cusp of a nuclear war was overstating the risk.
“I’ve seen no intelligence that would indicate that we’re in that place today,” Pompeo told “Fox News Sunday”.
However, North Korea reiterated its threats, 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”.
“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 agreed North Korea was likely to continue provocations, including nuclear tests, but did not see a big risk of the North engaging in actual military conflict.
Suh again highlighted doubts about North Korea‘s claims about its military capability.
“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 aKorea Broadcasting System show.
The United States and South Korea remain technically still at war with North Korea after the 1950-53 Korean conflict ended with a truce, not a peace treaty.
Tension in the region has risen since North Korea carried out two nuclear bomb tests last year and two intercontinental ballistic missile tests in July, tests that the North often conducts to coincide with important national dates.
Tuesday marks the anniversary of Japan’s expulsion from the Korean peninsula, a rare holiday celebrated by both the North and the South. Moon and Kim, who has not been seen publicly for several days, are both expected to make addresses on their respective sides of the heavily militarized border.
Trump has urged China, the North‘s main ally and trading partner, to do more to rein in its neighbor, often linking Beijing’s efforts to comments around U.S.-China trade.
China’s Commerce Ministry issued an order on Monday banning imports of coal, iron ore, lead concentrates and ore, lead and sea food from North Korea, effective from Tuesday.
The move followed the announcement of United Nations sanctions against North Korea earlier this month which have to be enforced within 30 days by member-states.
U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford told South Korea‘s Moon in a meeting on Monday that U.S. military options being prepared against North Korea would be for when diplomatic and economic sanctions failed, according to Moon’s office.