The nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula hit a crescendo Monday as South Korea’s military said it had uncovered signs the rival North was preparing for a fresh missile launch — possibly of a long-range weapon — and the Defense Ministry in Seoul announced it would push for the deployment of powerful U.S. strategic assets to the country.
The flurry of activity came just hours after Washington warned Pyongyang of a “massive military response” to “any threat” to the U.S. or its Asian allies in the wake of North Korea’s purported hydrogen bomb test.
It said the launch could come as early as Saturday, the anniversary of the founding of the Kim regime, or on Oct. 10, the establishment of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea.
The U.S. withdrew its tactical nuclear weapons from the peninsula in the early 1990s.
For its part, Seoul has appeared to take the reins amid the ongoing crisis, conducting a number of military drills in response to provocations from its neighbor. Drills on Monday included the firing of missiles into the sea, as part of a military exercise aimed at practicing for strikes on the North’s main Punggye-ri nuclear test site.
Hours ahead of those drills, Mattis said in Washington that any threat by Pyongyang to the United States, Japan or South Korea would result in a response both “effective and overwhelming.”
In a brief televised statement after a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump and top national security advisers, Mattis, standing next to Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joe Dunford, said that the international community was united on denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula and that Washington’s commitment to its allies remained unwavering.
Working to shore up Washington’s Asian alliances, Mattis also said that a wide range of military options had been discussed with Trump.
Mattis also singled out North Korea’s leader, warning him to listen carefully to the international outcry sparked by Pyongyang’s sixth and apparently most powerful nuclear test.
Mattis did not detail specific options, but Trump and his top advisers likely discussed everything from strategic asset deployments and overflights of bombers to plans for taking out North Korean missile sites and the country’s top leadership.
Andrew O’Neil, a professor of international relations at Griffith University in Australia, said that absent the deployment of tactical nukes, the U.S. and Seoul could also strengthen their conventional military presence in response to the North.
Monday’s tide of announcements came after the North hailed as a “perfect success” its test Sunday of a “two-stage thermonuclear weapon,” or hydrogen bomb, capable of being loaded onto an ICBM.
The North called “the operation of the nuclear warhead … fully guaranteed,” according to a statement carried by state-run media. “It also marked a very significant occasion in attaining the final goal of completing the state nuclear force.”
There was no independent confirmation that the device detonated was, in fact, a hydrogen bomb, but the large resulting earthquake near the Punggye-ri site appeared to indicate a more powerful blast than previous explosions by the North.
But NORSAR, a Norwegian earthquake monitoring agency, estimated the yield at 120 kilotons — a figure significantly higher than the 15-kiloton “Little Boy” bomb dropped on Hiroshima and the 20-kiloton “Fat Man” dropped on Nagasaki at the end of World War II.