Mattis also confirmed that he and his South Korean counterpart had recently discussed the possibility of putting USA nuclear weapons back into South Korea, an option that has been raised publicly by some South Korean politicians.
But with two recently launched North Korean missiles flying over northern Japan, the potential for having to consider a shoot-down without a direct threat remains very real, according to one senior defense official.
But signs that the United States is preparing a military option in North Korea – like a repositioning of military assets or an evacuation of USA citizens in the region – have not appeared.
“I will not go into details”, he said. US nuclear weapons were withdrawn from the Korean peninsula in the early 1990s at the close of the Cold War.
He said North Korea is deliberately carrying out tests that come as close as possible to provoking the USA without drawing a military response.
Mattis told reporters that he believed diplomacy and sanctions were so far succeeding in putting more pressure on Pyongyang.
The secretary made a September 15 trip to Mexico City to strengthen the bilateral defense relationship and participate in Mexican Independence Day activities, and to the reporters he said that Mexico had declared the North Korean ambassador a persona non grata.
Japan and USA missile defenses and radars are operating, he added, and North Korea is intentionally initiating provocations “that seem to press against the envelope for just how far can they push without going over some kind of a line in their minds that would make them vulnerable”.
“No. 1, those missiles are not directly threatening any of us”, he said.
Mattis acknowledged discussing that with his South Korean counterpart but declined to say whether that option was under consideration. It also has threatened to launch missiles close to the coast of Guam, a USA island territory in the Pacific.
The relocation came after a North Korean missile was test-fired last week and flew over southern Hokkaido and landed in the Pacific off the island’s east coast – the second flyover in less than a month.
The discussion of whether to shoot down a North Korean missile comes as USA intelligence has assessed that North Korea’s KN-17 (Hwasong 12) intermediate range ballistic missile has proven so successful in recent flight tests that Pyongyang now counts on it as part of its strategic deterrence against the U.S., according to a United States official familiar with the latest intelligence analysis. It was the country’s longest-ever test flight of a ballistic missile.
Japan now has a two-step missile defense system.
He said Pyongyang’s calculus appeared to be created to race forward with its missile program, “without going over some kind of a line in their minds that would make them vulnerable”. “So they aim for the middle of the Pacific Ocean”.
If a North Korean missile were to threaten USA or Japanese territory, he said, “that would elicit a different response from us”.