TOKYO - The United States prefers a peaceful resolution of the North Korean nuclear crisis, a US special envoy stressed on Thursday (Feb 1), countering speculation that a preemptive strike was its endgame.
US special representative for North Korea policy Joseph Yun told participants at a forum in Tokyo: "Again I would like to caution that I don't believe we are close to (a military strike), and I think we want to have credible negotiations.
"But we also have said, and we've been very consistent, that all options are on the table, and by all options, it has to include military options."
Mr Yun's statements came a day after Dr Victor Cha, a former White House official who was once tipped to become the next US envoy to South Korea, wrote a critical opinion piece in the Washington Post that the US' "all options" pursuit was with the goal of delivering a "bloody nose" to leader Kim Jong Un.
"Some may argue that US casualties and even a wider war on the Korean Peninsula are risks worth taking, given what is at stake," said Dr Cha, a professor at Georgetown University and senior adviser at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. "But a strike (even a large one) would only delay North Korea's missile-building and nuclear programmes, which are buried in deep, unknown places impenetrable to bunker-busting bombs."
Mr Yun was among panelists at Thurday's one-day symposium in Tokyo on dealing with security threats in North-east Asia. The forum was jointly held by Japanese think tank Toda Peace Institute, the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, and the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at New Zealand's University of Otago.
He said Washington's "peaceful pressure" policy involved "very strongly piling on pressure as well as leaving the door open for a dialogue", adding that the US has a communication channel open with Pyongyang.
"Everybody wants to give diplomacy a good run," Mr Yun said, referring to ongoing talks between the two Koreas on the North's participation in the Pyeongchang Winter Games in the South, which will begin on Feb 9.
The US has also agreed to postpone until after the Games its annual joint Foal Eagle military exercises with South Korea, which Pyongyang sees as a dress rehearsal for invasion.
But he cautioned that diplomacy is "not conducted by smoke signals", and said the North had to make a firm commitment to stop provocation in order for the US to agree to talks.
US President Donald Trump has maintained an aggressive stance towards North Korea's leadership, branding it as "depraved" in his State of the Union address Tuesday. He said Pyongyang's nuclear weapons might "very soon threaten" the US mainland.
With this in mind, it was crucial to ensure all countries imposed sanctions on the North as fully as possible to maximise pressure, Mr Yun said.
The US and Japan have called on China time and again, as the North's main economic benefactor, to do more to tighten the noose, even as Beijing has already imposed sanctions on the trade of coal, iron ore, consumer goods and textiles.
Mr Yun said: "We believe China has implemented the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions. But of course in terms of sanctions, there're a number of things going on including smuggling and trade that the authorities don't know about."
Further to that, fellow panelists Professor Shen Dingli, of Fudan University in Shanghai, and Ms Yun Sun, of the Stimson Centre in Washington DC, pointed out that China had not cut off oil completely nor resolved issues such as the maritime interdiction of North Korean vessels as these have not been agreed under the UNSC.
Even so, the general sentiment at the panel was that UN sanctions have taken their toll on Pyongyang.
This was the implication in Mr Kim's offer of his country to take part in the Olympic Games, an olive branch to Seoul. Further proof has been in how its winter military training this year has been smaller in scale.
Meanwhile, the record 104 North Korean "ghost ships" that washed ashore in Japan last year with 35 bodies and 42 survivors, also hinted at poor maintenance, fuel shortages, and a general desperation among fishermen, who are sailing further away, panelists said.
Yet Ms Sun warned the panel that an impasse was likely.
"It is a matter of regime legitimacy and national pride. With North Korea so close to achieving credible ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) capability, for them to give it all up now seems improbable."