WASHINGTON • The United States has gamed out four or five different scenarios for how the crisis with North Korea will be resolved, and "some are uglier than others", National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said as tensions remain high between the two countries.
While General McMaster said that the threat from Pyongyang is "much further advanced" than anticipated and the Pentagon said President Donald Trump has a "deep arsenal" to draw upon if needed, US officials dismissed North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho's comment that Mr Trump's warnings to Pyongyang at the United Nations amounted to a declaration of war.
"We have not declared war on North Korea," White House spokesman Sarah Sanders said on Monday. "And frankly, the suggestion of that is absurd. We continue to seek the peaceful denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula."
Both governments have said that "all options" are on the table in dealing with the tensions.
Defence Secretary James Mattis, speaking in India yesterday, said the US wants to keep engagement with North Korea in the diplomatic realm for as long as possible.
But Mr Ri escalated tensions with his remark on Monday in New York that North Korea would be within its rights to shoot down US warplanes flying in international airspace.
SEEKING PEACE FIRST
We have not declared war on North Korea. And frankly, the suggestion of that is absurd. We continue to seek the peaceful denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.
WHITE HOUSE SPOKESMAN SARAH SANDERS
POSSIBILITY OF WAR
There is not a 'precision strike' that solves the problem. There is not a military blockade that can solve the problem. What we hope to do is avoid war, but we cannot discount that possibility.
NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER H.R. MCMASTER
B-1B Lancer bombers, based in Guam, and F-15C Eagle fighter escorts from Okinawa, Japan, travelled the farthest north of the demilitarised zone that any US fighter or bomber aircraft have flown off North Korea's coast this century, Pentagon spokesman Dana White said in a statement last week.
North Korea raised security on its eastern coastline after being surprised by the bombers, which were not caught by its radar, Yonhap News reported, citing the head of the intelligence committee of South Korea's Parliament.
Military analysts say any conflict between the US and North Korea would risk a devastating attack by Pyongyang on the South Korean capital Seoul.
"There is not a 'precision strike' that solves the problem," Gen McMaster said at an event in Washington hosted by the Institute for the Study of War.
"There is not a military blockade that can solve the problem. What we hope to do is avoid war, but we cannot discount that possibility," he said.
He declined to comment on the extent to which North Korea's deeply buried nuclear programme was vulnerable to US military strikes.
He acknowledged that every military option assumed a reaction from North Korea that endangered South Korean citizens, adding that it is "foremost in our minds".
That danger "is certainly taken into consideration in all our planning and war gaming, table-top exercise efforts", Gen McMaster said.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has accelerated his ballistic missile and nuclear weapons testing programme. In response, the US has led two recent rounds of UN sanctions on the regime, winning support from China - North Korea's top trading partner - and Russia.
The US is "just now" beginning to see the initial results of those sanctions, Gen McMaster said, adding that it is in China's best interest to ensure compliance with the UN restrictions.
China would face "the prospect of a re-arming" in the region and enhanced military activities in South Korea and Japan. "There is a lot that has changed," he said.
In addition to the UN sanctions, Mr Trump announced an executive order last Thursday that allows the US to impose a full trade and financial embargo on non-US banks, companies and people doing business with North Korea.
The Pentagon said that its most recent bomber and fighter exercises were meant to underscore "the seriousness with which we take DPRK's reckless behaviour", Ms White said last week, using the acronym for the North's official name - the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
"This mission is a demonstration of US resolve and a clear message that the President has many military options."