WASHINGTON — North Korea will face “strong military consequences” if it “initiates hostilities” with America or its allies in the Pacific, U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis reaffirmed Thursday in an apparent break with a top White House adviser.

Speaking at the State Department following a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono and Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera, Mattis also said that any North Korean launch toward territory controlled by the U.S., South Korea or Japan would result in “immediate, specific actions to take it down.”


North Korean missile range

It was not clear if that red line covers missiles launched over territory controlled by those nations, a key question in light of North Korea’s threat to launch four ICBMs toward Guam. The flight path of such missiles would most likely involve flying over Japan, something the Japanese government has long held as a line the North Koreans cannot be allowed to cross.

A week after U.S. President Donald Trump flared tensions in the region by promising ”fire and fury” on North Korea, the chances of imminent nuclear war appear to have faded. U.S. military assets in the region have not been deployed, nor have American personnel been evacuated from South Korea or Japan, and North Korea has not followed up on a threat to launch missiles toward Guam. 

But with North Korea unlikely to give up its nuclear program in the future, most U.S. officials have been clear that military action will always be an option to defend itself or its allies.

In that regard, Mattis’s comments are in line with previous statements. But they come one day after White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon, a controversial figure who reportedly has clashed with both Mattis and Tillerson about foreign policy, said in an interview that North Korea is just a “sideshow” and that military options are no longer realistic for dealing with the regime of Kim Jong-Un.

“There’s no military solution [to North Korea’s nuclear threats]; forget it,” Bannon said in an interview with the American Prospect. “Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that 10 million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about; there’s no military solution here. They got us.”

Tillerson acknowledged seeing the comment but was dismissive when asked whether Bannon’s statement reflected a change in administration policy.

“We are prepared [with the military] to respond if that is necessary. That is not our preferred pathway, and that has been made clear, as well. We continue our full out efforts, working with partners, working with allies, to bring that pressure on the regime in North Korea” through economic isolation, Tillerson said.

As he has done in the past, Mattis used the opportunity to emphasize that any military action against North Korea would be made in consultation with regional partners that would suffer the most in any conflict, saying, ”We in the United States reorganize any confrontation with North Korea would propose an immediate danger“ to South Korea and Japan.

Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.

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