WASHINGTON — Oct 13, 2017, 3:54 PM ET

Amid Trump ambiguity on NKorea, is US practicing for war?

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Do the ominous rhetoric from President Donald Trump and repeated flights by U.S. strategic bombers over the Korean Peninsula mean Washington is readying for what many feel is unthinkable — a military conflict with a nuclear-armed North Korea that would put millions of civilians at risk?

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U.S. B-1B bombers flew this week over South Korea with fighter jet escorts from the allied nation, in what's become an increasingly familiar show of force to Pyongyang. It came just days after Trump said "only one thing will work" with North Korea and referred, ambiguously, to "the calm before the storm" — remarks he said Friday referred to the North.

PHOTO: A North Korean soldier looks through the window of the building that sits on the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in Panmunjom, South Korea, that separates the two Koreas, July 21, 2010.
SLIDESHOW: The seesaw relationship between North Korea and the US

"We're totally prepared for numerous things," Trump told reporters Friday. "If something can happen where we negotiate, I'm always open to that," he said, changing tack from his recent comments disparaging the chances of successful talks with Pyongyang.

"But if it's going to be something other than negotiation, believe me we are ready, more so than we have ever been," he said.

White House chief of staff John Kelly said Thursday that North Korea can't be allowed to develop the ability to strike the U.S. but the threat is "manageable" for now.

Jim Schoff, a former senior Pentagon adviser for East Asia policy, said it doesn't appear "U.S. policymakers think we're on the brink of all-out war."

But he added that doesn't mean the administration is bluffing or has ruled out some kind of limited strike in response to a North Korean provocation. He said most telling were the repeated B1-B bomber flights, which he said were not intended just to signal U.S. resolve, but to practice making the long flight from the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam where they are based, and "to get a feel for what kind of air defenses North Korea has and how we see them react."

Trump on Tuesday discussed with military chiefs, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, "a range of options to respond to any form of North Korean aggression or, if necessary, to prevent North Korea from threatening the United States and its allies with nuclear weapons," the White House said.

"If we made a decision to strike a few strategic targets in North Korea it could happen very quickly," said Rob Givens, a former Air Force brigadier general who served as deputy assistant chief of staff for operations of U.S. Forces Korea. He said unless the U.S. decided to undertake a visible military buildup to deter Pyongyang, the public was unlikely to see an attack coming.

For now, there's little indication that either the U.S. or North Korea is preparing for a resumption of the 1950-53 Korean War, which devastated the peninsula.

North Korea, which suffers food shortages, is in the midst of a fall harvest for which military manpower is needed. Civilians are not reported to be mobilizing for war. Addressing a ruling party meeting last weekend, leader Kim Jong Un railed against "U.S. imperialists," but the bulk of his speech was about the economy.

In South Korea, there's been no move to prepare civilians for evacuation, among them more than 100,000 Americans. They include thousands of family members of the 28,500 U.S. troops based there. Many live in the capital, Seoul, in range of thousands of North Korean artillery guns and rockets positioned close to the tense frontier.

Givens said if civilians were not evacuated before a strike, the U.S. and its allies may have to go through the preparations of mobilizing for a wider war and evacuating civilians even as they fight the North Koreans.

Trump's then-White House strategic adviser, Steve Bannon, dismissed the threat of U.S. military action as a bluff shortly before he was fired in August.

"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," Bannon said in an interview with The American Prospect.

During past high tension with North Korea, the U.S. has contemplated but not resorted to offensive military action.

Probably the closest the enemies have come to resuming the Korean War came in 1976, after North Korean troops bludgeoned to death two U.S. military officers in the demilitarized zone over a dispute about a tree obscuring the allies' line of sight. The U.S. mobilized fighter jets and B-52 bombers and deployed an aircraft carrier off the coast.

Among the options considered by the Gerald Ford administration were an airstrike at the eastern end of the DMZ or an artillery attack on a North Korean barracks. In the end, Ford decided against military reprisals because of the potential for escalation, and the U.S. settled for cutting down the tree amid a massive show of force. North Korea's leader at the time, Kim Il Sung, subsequently expressed regret over the initial incident.

In 1994, the Bill Clinton administration considered bombing North Korea's nuclear complex after it began defueling a reactor that could provide fissile material for bombs. As military chiefs in Washington planned for contingencies, the U.S. ambassador and commander of U.S. forces in Korea secretly began planning to evacuate Americans.

The confrontation was headed off after former President Jimmy Carter met with Kim Il Sung, leading to an aid-for-disarmament agreement that endured for nearly a decade.

Givens, who served in Korea during the most serious recent war scare on the peninsula — in 2010, when a Southern warship was torpedoed and the North shelled an island — cautioned that North Korea was likely to fight back against even a limited strike, meaning the U.S. would have to prepare for a major conflict if it took that step.

"If I were in charge, I wouldn't do a strategic strike unless I was prepared to go all the way," he said.

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Associated Press writers Laurie Kellman in Washington and Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report.

News - Amid Trump ambiguity on NKorea, is US practicing for war?

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  • Len Johnson

    Man has been fighting and killing man since man became man 250,000 years ago.

    It's the way nature is designed.

    Deal with it.

  • wescraske

    In other news: yanks lost to astros 2-1 in first game of ALCS; and, Dennis Rodman got a new tatt & piercing before departing LAX for NK earlier today.

  • rick moss

    Republican presidents like to have wars. For example, Bush Sr. and the middle east war; Bush Jr. and the war in Iraq. Wars are good for making money for the one percent and that's all that counts in their minds. They don't care how many of our soldiers die; and Trump doesn't care how many millions he'll kill as long as he's not one of them.

    I've been saying this president is DANGEROUS since he was elected. He's mentally unstable and does not see the world as most intelligent people do. And so far all he's done is confirm my conclusions about him. As long as he thinks it'll get him publicity and make him some money Trump will have no problem starting a war. The question is - will Congress stop him before he gets the chance.

  • Nick

    There is only one time to cut the head off the snake, this not only has to take out Kim but all his military and political leaders. I suggest the once a year meeting in their grand hall, a regular bomb might not work since many can escape in tunnels, but a small nuke could do it.

  • Mick

    Welcome to the Reality TV War brought to you by none other than Mr Reality TV himself. I can't see this going well because nothing else has. Stay tuned...

  • Trekker

    When you have two mentally unstable leaders such as Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, launching threats at each other, its not a matter of if war will break out, its a matter of when. Unless, countries such as China, Russia and Japan, can intervene and persuade these two leaders to start talks about having real talks, to make the Korean peninsula nuclear free, and come to a verifiable agreement that results in lasting peace.

  • Independent Cacodemon

    China has told NK that they're on their own if they strike first, and has likewise told us they'll back them if we strike first, so each side is left trying to provoke the other into taking the first swing.

  • Chuck

    War with North Korea is war with China. Hope your ready for a long, long, long engagement, and not just with bombs. It will take ground forces also. Get ready for the draft as we will be going up against on army of 2 1/2 million. How exciting for us.

  • Ron

    Naaaaaaaaaaa. What gave you THAT idea? America has been IN WAR, somewhere in the world for the last 70+ years. Why stop now?

  • Randy Rjd

    Should send all trump voters to the front lines. Maybe they can hug all those guns too

  • Tom

    This man has no concept of how to solve problems only how to create them or make things worse. Look at his approach to healthcare reform. He would see people die from lack of affordable healthcare just to have his way. He's about Trump first, not the citizens he works for,

  • Carla Ramo

    Inflammatory article much ABC News? Yeesh!

  • b rubble

    Any country would win a war against us now if Trump makes the calls. You can give someone all the pieces but if you don't know how to use them or have everything work together it is useless. Kind of like a sports team loaded with talent but if you have a bad coach that can't get the team to work together and execute smart decisions then you get demolished.

  • b rubble

    General: Mr. President, North Korea broke through and has landed on our shores.
    Donald: Wait, I have to send out these tweets against the fake news that say I am losing the war. All lies I tell you. I am winning the war beautifully!

  • GayEGO

    So far, Trump's comments about NK are very similar to Mexico paying for the wall, equal and a value of NADA!

  • thinkmore

    The continued existence of the USA depends on limiting Trump's power. He has no knowledge, experience, or moral scruples that would prevent him from launching a nuclear first strike against NK.

    Take away Trump's ability to launch a nuclear war!

  • Chuck

    All of the republican presidents in the last 40 years have engaged us in some kind of war activity. Why would we expect anything less now with this looney in charge?