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U.S., Russia Spar Over Approach to North Korea Threat

Pentagon notes advances by Pyongyang as U.S. warns regime of further isolation, military option

Farnaz Fassihi

The U.S. and Russia clashed at the United Nations Security Council over how to respond to North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program, a confrontation throwing into doubt U.S. hopes for an international diplomatic solution to the burgeoning crisis.

The standoff between diplomats on Wednesday came just two days before President Donald Trump and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin plan to hold their first meeting during the summit of the Group of 20 leading nations in Germany, raising the stakes for both leaders as well as China, which will attend the international gathering.

Following North Korea’s July 4 launch of its first intercontinental ballistic missile, deemed by U.S. officials to be capable of reaching Alaska, U.S. officials invoked direct threats of military action as they tried to marshal coordinated international action.

At the U.N., U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley warned diplomats that “time is short” for diplomatic action and said the Trump administration would be willing to use military force if punitive restrictions failed to deter North Korea from its plans to perfect a weapon that can strike the U.S.

In Seoul, Gen. Vincent Brooks, the top American military commander in South Korea, said the U.S. and South Korea were prepared to go to war with the North if given the order.

“Self restraint, which is a choice, is all that separates armistice and war,” Gen. Brooks said. “We are able to change our choice when so ordered.…It would be a grave mistake for anyone to believe anything to the contrary.”

U.S. officials for years have said an attack on North Korea would have devastating results in the form of a counterattack on South Korea and possibly Japan.

Military action, some analysts say, could take a number of forms. Most likely among them: a limited airstrike on North Korea’s nuclear infrastructure or missile facilities. How successful such an attack would be in derailing North Korea’s nuclear program would depend in large part on the quality of U.S. and allied intelligence on the nuclear and missile sites. Far less likely, but also possible, would be an attack designed to target the country’s leadership.

U.S. military officials on Wednesday said North Korea’s latest weapons test featured a new type of missile fired from a mobile launch site, two factors propelling the view in Washington that the isolated country’s nuclear-weapons program is a growing threat.

Pentagon officials, briefing reporters on Tuesday’s launch, described the potential weapon as a new kind of missile U.S. officials haven’t seen launched from North Korea before. The two-stage missile was launched from a location known as the Banghyon Aircraft Plant, about 60 miles north of Pyongyang, said Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.

At the emergency session of the Security Council on Wednesday, the U.S. said it would introduce a new Security Council resolution within days to tighten and expand economic and diplomatic sanctions in response to North Korea’s ICBM launch.

However, Russia and China formed a united front against the U.S. and its allies, saying they would strongly oppose new sanctions or military action, and offering a joint plan that called for dialogue and a parallel halt in military operations and exercises by all parties, including the U.S., in the Korean Peninsula. Both Russia and China have veto power, as permanent members of the Security Council, and hold considerable sway over North Korea.

Ms. Haley fired back, indicating the U.S. would be willing to put the resolution to a vote even in the absence of a consensus, an unusual move in a diplomatic body that usually takes care to coordinate texts of resolutions behind closed doors to appear united.

“If you are happy with North Korea’s actions, veto it,” she told them. “If you want to be a friend of North Korea, veto it.” She added that if they were to block the U.S. proposal, “then we will go our own path.”

Any overt military action would run the risk that the North Korean regime would interpret the attack as an existential threat and respond with force that could kill millions of people on the Korean peninsula, including some of the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has warned that a military solution would be “tragic on an unbelievable scale.”

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