SEOUL, South Korea — The top US military officer told his counterparts in South Korea on Monday that the United States is ready to use the “full range” of its military capabilities to defend itself and its allies from any North Korean provocation.
The development came as China announced it will cut off imports of North Korean coal, iron ore and other goods in three weeks under UN sanctions imposed over the North’s nuclear and missile programs.
Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was visiting South Korea, Japan and China after a week in which US President Donald Trump traded threats with North Korea.
Trump declared the US military “locked and loaded” and said he was ready to unleash “fire and fury” if North Korea continued to threaten the United States.
North Korea, meanwhile, has threatened to lob four intermediate-range missiles into the waters near Guam, a tiny US territory about 3,200 kilometers (2,000 miles) from Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital. This would be a deeply provocative act, from the US perspective, and there has been widespread debate about whether Washington would try to shoot the missiles down if they’re fired.
The US-North Korea standoff, which has simmered since the end of the Korean War in 1953, has grown more tense in recent months over worries that the North’s nuclear weapons program is nearing the ability to target the US mainland. Pyongyang tested two intercontinental ballistic missiles last month.
Dunford, who met with senior South Korean military officials and President Moon Jae-in, “stressed that North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs threaten the entire global community,” according to US military spokesman Capt. Darryn James. “He conveyed America’s readiness to use the full range of military capabilities to defend our allies and the US homeland,” James said.
Moon separately called Monday for a peaceful solution to the nuclear standoff, saying that “there must not be another war on the Korean Peninsula,” according to his office.
In a meeting with top aides at the presidential Blue House, Moon said South Korea would work to safeguard peace on the peninsula in cooperation with the United States and other countries. Moon said North Korea must stop issuing menacing statements and provoking.
North Korea, which is angry over new United Nations sanctions condemning its rapidly developing nuclear and missile program, continued its tough stance on Monday.
The North accused the United States of mobilizing a huge number of weapons and troops for annual military drills with South Korea that begin later this month. Pyongyang, which claims the drills are war preparation, says it will be ready to send its Guam missile launch plan to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for approval just before or as the drills begin.
“What matters is that if a second conflict (on the peninsula) erupts, that cannot help but lead to a nuclear war,” the North’s official Korean Central News Agency said in a commentary. “We are closely monitoring every move by the United States.”
The commentary said that about 3.5 million young students and workers have volunteered to join or rejoin the army because of a possible confrontation with the United States.
Dunford earlier told reporters traveling with him to Asia that he aims to “sense what the temperature is in the region.” He also will discuss military options in the event the “diplomatic and economic pressurization campaign” fails.
“We’re all looking to get out of this situation without a war,” Dunford said.
Chinese President Xi Jinping talked on the phone Saturday with Trump and called for cool-headedness. Xi urged Washington and Pyongyang to avoid words or actions that could worsen the situation.
Trump has pushed China, North Korea’s biggest economic partner and source of aid, to do more to stop the North’s nuclear ambitions. Beijing says its influence on Pyongyang is limited.
China, the isolated North’s main trading partner, has been reluctant to push leader Kim’s regime too hard for fear it might collapse. But Beijing is increasingly frustrated with Pyongyang and supported a UN Security Council ban on Aug. 5 on coal and other key goods.
The Chinese customs agency said it will stop processing imports of North Korean coal, iron and lead ores and fish at midnight on September 5.
“After that, entry of these goods will be prohibited,” said an agency statement.
The latest UN sanctions are intended to block North Korean exports worth $1 billion — a significant share of total exports valued at $3 billion last year.
China stopped importing North Korean coal in February but total trade has risen, which prompted Trump to accuse Beijing in July of failing to use its economic leverage to stop Pyongyang’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Beijing had long been Pyongyang’s only diplomatic defender but agreed in March 2016 to sanctions against the North following its test of a long-range missile.
Still, Chinese leaders oppose blocking all trade with the impoverished North, which they argue might cause widespread hunger.
The Chinese import cut will come the week of Foundation Day on Sept. 9, the North Korean holiday commemorating the founding of the country’s government in 1948.
North Korean imports of Chinese oil, consumer goods and other products rose 36.7 percent from a year earlier in the first half of this year to 1.1 billion yuan ($165 million), according to Chinese customs data. Chinese imports from the North fell 7.6 percent in the same period to 611 million yuan ($91 million), squeezing the North’s revenue.
Trump’s recent threats followed a report that US intelligence indicates North Korea can now put a nuclear warhead on its long-range missiles.
For all his bluster, Trump’s words did not appear to be backed by significant military mobilization on either side of the Pacific, and an important, quiet diplomatic channel remained open.
On Sunday, US CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, tried to provide assurances that a conflict was avoidable, while also supporting Trump’s tough talk. They said the United States and its allies no longer can afford to stand by as North Korea pushes ahead with the development of a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.