U.S. reducing rhetoric that feeds North Korean belligerence

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By Barbara Starr/CNN Pentagon Correspondent

 WASHINGTON (CNN) — Recent announcements of U.S. military deployments in response to belligerent statements by North Korea may have contributed to the escalating tensions between the countries, Pentagon officials told CNN on Thursday in explaining an effort to reduce U.S. rhetoric about North Korea.

“We accused the North Koreans of amping things up, now we are worried we did the same thing,” one Defense Department official said.

The officials spoke on the same day a U.S. official told CNN that communications intercepts indicated North Korea may be planning to launch a mobile ballistic missile in coming days or weeks.

South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin told a parliamentary committee in Seoul that the North has moved a medium-range missile to its east coast for an imminent test firing or military drill, according to the semi-official South Korean news agency Yonhap.

Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said he thinks the missile in question is a Musudan, which the North hasn’t tested before.

The missile is based on a Soviet system with a range of about 2,400 kilometers (1,500 miles), far enough to reach Japan but not U.S. forces based on Guam. He called the missile movement “of concern, certainly to the U.S. military and to Japan.”

As a vital ally to South Korea since the Korean war in the 1950s, the United States has pledged military backing to Seoul in the event of an attack by North Korea. In addition, North Korea has been developing nuclear weapon technology, raising concerns of rapid proliferation in the region and even a possible nuclear strike by Pyongyang.

The fraught situation on the Korean Peninsula stems from the North’s latest long-range rocket launch in December and underground nuclear test in February.

In response, the United States helped bring tougher U.N. sanctions on North Korea and took part in joint military exercises with South Korea, prompting Kim Jong Un’s government to ratchet up its threats in recent weeks.

That caused the United States to display its military strength in the annual drills taking place now, flying B-2 stealth bombers capable of carrying conventional or nuclear weapons, as well as Cold War-era B-52s and F-22 Raptor stealth fighters over South Korea.

On Thursday, a North Korean army official warned that “the moment of explosion is approaching fast.”

“No one can say a war will break out in Korea or not and whether it will break out today or tomorrow,” said the spokesman for the General Staff of the North’s Korean People’s Army (KPA).

“The responsibility for this grave situation entirely rests with the U.S. administration and military warmongers keen to encroach upon the DPRK’s sovereignty and bring down its dignified social system with brigandish logic,” the KPA spokesman added in a statement published by the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

On Wednesday, White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters that “the provocative actions and bellicose rhetoric that we see from North Korea is obviously of concern, and we are taking the necessary precautionary measures, many of which have been reported on.”

“It is also the case that the behavior of the regime in Pyongyang that we are seeing now represents a familiar pattern,” he added in reference to past episodes of heightened North Korean threats and rhetoric generally considered efforts to increase leverage on international issues.

A Defense Department official told CNN on Thursday that from a communications point of view, “we are trying to turn the volume down” on U.S. rhetoric about North Korea. The official, speaking on condition of not being identified, said the change referred to public statements by the Obama administration instead of how U.S. military hardware were being deployed in the region.

According to the official, some Pentagon officials were surprised at how U.S. news releases and statements on North Korea were generating world headlines and therefore provoking a Pyongyang response.

“We are absolutely trying to ratchet back the rhetoric,” the official said. “We become part of the cycle. We allowed that to happen.”

Previously, the Obama administration established a “playbook” of prescripted actions and responses to the last several weeks of North Korean rhetoric and provocations, an administration official said Thursday.

The scripted actions included an increased show of U.S. military force — such as the flying of B-2 bombers — during the annual U.S.-South Korea military exercise, the Foal Eagle.

“Eyebrows started to go up when it was clear Foal Eagle was going to be protected from the budget cuts of sequestration,” the official said, referring to the forced federal spending cuts that went into effect in March.

The playbook planning began under former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta but was picked up and supported strongly by now-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, the official said.

Details of the playbook were first reported by the Wall Street Journal. The administration official declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the situation.

Some moves not scripted

However, some of the U.S. military’s reactions to Pyongyang’s saber-rattling were not part of the playbook planning.

Instead, they arose from concerns about what North Korea has planned as the U.S.-South Korean exercise conclude, the administration official said.

For example, the deployment of ballistic missile defenses closer to North Korea and a land-based missile-intercept system to Guam were ordered in recent days when U.S. intelligence began to gather information that North Korea might be planning additional missile launches.

A ‘complicated, combustible situation’

U.S. officials have publicly stressed that the American military moves were meant as much to assure the South Koreans that they have Washington’s full support.

“What I can tell you is that our response and the mix of assets we have applied to our responses is prudent, logical and measured,” Pentagon spokesman George Little said earlier this week.

“We are in the midst right now of — of very important annual exercises that we regularly conduct with the South Koreans, and these exercises are about alliance assurance. They’re first and foremost about showing the South Koreans and showing our other allies in the region, including the Japanese, that we are ready to defend them in the wake of threats.”

When asked by CNN earlier this week about the “message” the United States was trying to send to North Korea, Little said it was the North Koreans who are being provocative.

“The North Koreans — even before those exercises started — had undertaken provocative steps, and they’ve conducted underground nuclear tests, they’ve conducted missile tests outside their international obligations. So they have a track record now over the past few months of provocative behavior,” he said.

“We are in the business of ensuring our South Korean allies that we will help defend them in the face of threats,” Little said in response. “So I don’t think it’s a contradiction. I think that North Koreans have engaged in certain actions and have said things that are provocative. We are looking for the temperature to be taken down on the Korean Peninsula.”

Hagel hinted at risks in reacting to North Korea, calling the tensions a “complicated, combustible situation” that could “explode into a worse situation.”

“It only takes being wrong once. And I don’t want to be the secretary of defense who was wrong once. So we will continue to take these threats seriously. I hope the North will ratchet this very dangerous rhetoric down,” Hagel said Wednesday.

“But they’ve got to be a responsible member of the world community. And you don’t achieve that responsibility and peace and prosperity by making nuclear threats and taking very provocative actions.”

CNN’s Chris Lawrence, Joe Sterling and Tom Cohen contributed to this report

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