SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - The United States came close to nuclear war with North Korea in 2017, launching a precision missile to demonstrate to Pyongyang that it could strike any target, including North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, according to a new book by Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward.
In response to Pyongyang test-firing its first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching the US on July 4, 2017, retired general Vincent Brooks, who headed US Forces Korea from 2016 to 2018, ordered troops to fire a tactical missile that travelled 300km before dropping into the East Sea, also known as Sea of Japan, according to Mr Woodward's Rage, a revelatory book about the presidency of Mr Donald Trump set for release on Tuesday (Sept 15).
"That was the exact distance between the launching point of the US missile and the North Korean missile test site, as well as a tent where satellite photos showed Kim Jong Un was watching the missile launch," Mr Woodward wrote, according to excerpts obtained by Yonhap News Agency.
"The meaning was meant to be clear: Kim Jong Un needed to worry about his personal safety," Mr Woodward said, adding that it was never confirmed whether the North had got the message.
Following its ICBM test, the North upped provocations, launching a more powerful ICBM on July 28 and another ballistic missile over Japan on Aug 29, which Mr Woodward described as a "clear escalation" that "changed the character of the threat".
Then defence secretary James Mattis mulled over whether the US should carry out a military attack in response, but reconsidered due to the consequences that would likely entail.
"(Mattis) began looking for more aggressive response options and wondered if they should take some actual bombing action in a North Korean port to send the message," Mr Woodward said. "(Mattis) did not think that President Trump would launch a pre-emptive strike on North Korea, although plans for such a war were on the shelf."
With the escalation of provocations in 2017, Mr Trump's national security team also believed the potential for nuclear war with the North was there.
"We never knew whether it was real or whether it was a bluff," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was quoted as saying in the book.
Mr Mattis even slept in his clothes so he would be ready in case of a provocation by the North and went to the nearby Washington National Cathedral to pray, Mr Woodward reported.
Mr Woodward said the US Strategic Command in Omaha, Nebraska, had carefully reviewed Operation Plan 5027 - the war plans in case of a North Korean invasion - which included "the use of 80 nuclear weapons".
"This weighed heavily on me every day. I had to consider every day this could happen. This was not a theoretical concern," Mr Mattis was quoted as saying, raising concern that "the worst possible situation might dictate the use of nuclear weapons".
For the book, Mr Woodward - a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who is best known for uncovering the Watergate scandal - conducted 18 interviews with Mr Trump between December and July.
During one of the interviews, Mr Trump told Mr Woodward that Washington came closer to war with Pyongyang than anyone can imagine in 2017.
"Much closer than anyone would know. Much closer," Mr Trump said, insisting that Mr Kim, too, must have known.
"But he knows. I have a great relationship, let me just put it that way," Mr Trump said.