WASHINGTON – The Pentagon is considering new deployments in the Pacific Ocean to signal North Korea that the United States remains capable of blunting an attack in Korea despite its focus on possible war in Iraq.
No decision has been made, but Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is considering options including sending an aircraft carrier to the waters off the Korean peninsula and adding bombers in Guam, officials said Monday.
The United States has 37,000 troops stationed in South Korea, where it has maintained a force since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce. Tension between Washington and Pyongyang over North Korea's nuclear program has been rising since October, however, and officials said they want to deter the North from provocations during any war to remove Saddam Hussein as Iraq's president.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said President Bush still believes the North Korean standoff can be resolved peacefully. "That doesn't mean the United States won't have contingencies and make certain those contingencies are viable," Fleischer told reporters.
Rumsfeld held a 45-minute meeting Monday at the Pentagon with Chyung Dai-chul, a special envoy for the South Korean president-elect, Roh Moo-hyun, who takes office Feb. 25. Chyung is on a weeklong Washington visit, to include talks Tuesday with Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Rumsfeld and Chyung discussed the future of the U.S.-South Korean military alliance and the need for updating and modernizing it, according to a Pentagon spokesman, Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Davis.
"They also discussed North Korea and the need to continue working together for a peaceful solution," Davis said.
American officials disclosed Friday that spy satellites had detected what appeared to be trucks moving spent fuel rods from a North Korean nuclear facility. It was viewed as a possible sign Kim Jong Il's government might be preparing to process the rods to produce nuclear weapons, which would be an escalation of the confrontation that has developed with the United States since October.
The Navy has long had a carrier deployed to the Pacific region, home-ported in Yokosuka, Japan. But because of the possibility that the carrier there, the USS Kitty Hawk, could be ordered to the Persian Gulf, officials were considering sending another to the Korean area -- possibly the USS Carl Vinson, which is on exercises in Hawaii, or the USS Nimitz, which is in port in San Diego.
In that sense, a carrier in the region would not be an addition, although having it on station off the Korean coast would be uncommon, one official said.
Officials also are considering sending B-1 and B-52 bombers to the Pacific island of Guam, which would be additions.
The administration has said it favors a diplomatic rather than military solution to problems on the peninsula and has tried to play down the crisis. The dispute has been growing since October, when U.S. officials said the North had admitted having begun a second nuclear program despite a 1994 agreement with Washington that was to have stopped such activity.
Washington and its allies suspended oil shipments to North Korea in November that had been promised by the Clinton administration deal. The oil was to have compensated for electricity production lost when North Korea ended its nuclear weapons program and mothballed its reactor at Yongbyon, north of the capital, Pyongyang. The Bush administration stopped shipments after learning that North Korea had restarted development of nuclear weapons.
In response to the suspension, Pyongyang has moved to restart its first nuclear program, which was suspected of being used to make atomic weapons, and expelled U.N. monitors and pulled out of a global nuclear arms control treaty.
At the Yongbyon complex, North Korea has stored some 8,000 spent rods that, if reprocessed, could produce enough plutonium to make four or five nuclear weapons, U.S. officials have said.