U.S. military forces reportedly trained earlier this month for a mission that would put them on North Korean soil, with the objective of “infiltrating" and "removing weapons of mass destruction," according to foreign military sources.
Revealing photos of a recent exercise, dubbed Warrior Strike IX, show a U.S. military unit known as "The Black Jack Brigade" training alongside their South Korean counterparts at Camp Stanley, in Korea. The pictures were featured in a post on the unit's Facebook page.
The images show soldiers training with night-vision equipment, armored vehicles and full-face protective gear, including gas masks. Descriptions of the event suggest soldiers practiced for eventualities such as transporting injured comrades and capturing combatants.
According to South Korea's Yonhap news agency, which quoted anonymous military sources, the combined exercise was designed to simulate "infiltrating North Korea and removing weapons of mass destruction in case of conflict." An Army spokesperson stationed in South Korea declined to comment.
"We're either going to have to kind of play it using military force, or accept that North Korea will be the nuclear arms sale center of the world - to Iran, to terrorist groups, to other third-world countries that have nuclear aspirations."
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has suggested repeatedly that one of his main goals in Korea was to avoid sending U.S. forces into North Korean territory. But he also seemed to concede last week that is a scenario that might need to be addressed.
On Dec. 13, State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert reiterated to reporters what Tillerson has described as the four things he won’t do when it comes to North Korea – a list he calls the “four no’s.”
"We are not seeking the collapse of the North Korean regime. We are not seeking regime change. We are not seeking the accelerated reunification of the Korean Peninsula. And we are not seeking an excuse to send our military north of the [border with South Korea]," according to Nauert.
She was responding to a question concerning remarks Tillerson had made a day earlier. Speaking to an audience at the 2017 Atlantic Council-Korea Foundation Forum on Dec. 12, Tillerson was asked about concerns China could experience a mass influx of refugees in the event of a regime collapse in Pyongyang.
While acknowledging those concerns, Tillerson noted refugees wouldn't be the most pressing problem.
"The most important thing to us would be securing those nuclear weapons they’ve already developed and ensuring that they – that nothing falls into the hands of people we would not want to have it.” He added the Chinese have apparently been privy to some of the planning that's been done for this eventuality, which includes the crossing of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), otherwise known as the 38th Parallel.
"We have had conversations that if something happened and we had to go across a line, we have given the Chinese assurances we would go back and retreat back to the south of the 38th Parallel when whatever the conditions that caused that to happen," Tillerson said.
In rare remarks before the U.N. Security Council on Dec. 15, North Korea's ambassador suggested his nation's pursuit of nuclear weapons is a direct response to "nuclear blackmail" on behalf of the United States.
John Bolton, a former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. and a Fox News contributor, dismissed the North Korean speech as "propaganda.” He added one of the only solutions he sees when it comes to North Korea's nuclear arsenal is to convince China to support a regime change in Pyongyang.
If that solution doesn't pan out, however, Bolton suggested the U.S. could soon be forced to make a difficult decision.
"We're either going to have to kind of play it using military force, or accept that North Korea will be the nuclear arms sale center of the world - to Iran, to terrorist groups, to other third-world countries that have nuclear aspirations,” Bolton said. “That is not a future I look forward to," he added.
The notion of "regime change" is a frequent topic of conversation. It can mean everything from putting pressure on allies to support a transition of power to actually removing political leaders by force - sometimes referred to as a political "decapitation."
As Fox News reported over the summer, a South Korean lawmaker suggested the country's intelligence agency had determined North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un is so terrified of being targeted that he travels incognito, and is now "obsessed with collecting information about the 'decapitation operation' through his intelligence agencies."
According to that South Korean lawmaker, Kim is so frightened that he now disguises his movements, travels primarily at dawn, and in the cars of his henchmen. Public appearances and jaunts in his prized Mercedes Benz 600 have been curtailed.
North Korea’s U.N. representative referenced the “beheading operation” in a sternly worded, 2016 letter to the Security Council, suggesting the joint military operations regularly conducted by the U.S. and South Korea “constitute a grave threat to [North Korea], as well as international peace and security.”
By January of this year, there were reports South Korea was speeding up the creation of a specialized unit designed for this mission, initially slated to be ready by 2019.
During this year's Foal Eagle and Key Resolve exercises with South Korea, one of the largest annual military exercises in the world, members of U.S. Navy SEAL teams reportedly participated in decapitation drills with South Korean counterparts for the first time.